Visiting Austin during SXSW
Last year, I wasn't well prepared with any ideas of where I should be eating in the area, and I don't want to make that mistake again. I read the "Chow guide to SXSW" and saw nothing but negative feedback from the regulars of this forum.
Seeking out a second opinion, I recently read another blog about food at SXSW:
I'd like to get some input from Austin locals on how good those suggestions are. Also, I'd definitely appreciate any other suggestions you may have! At some point in the trip, I'm planning to head over to Lockhart as well :)
First off, one of the writers on that site is YiMay, a old friend and a Chowhound denizen. Her tips are usually pure gold. That disclaimer aside, here are my takes.
I'll give you my spot-by-spot tips. Please forgive my lack of massive detail, and feel free to ask for more information about any restaurant as needed.
* Taco Shack
I have always had a soft spot for Taco Shack's Shack Taco; please note, some folks I know think the chorizo tastes more like dry dogfood. To each their own, I guess. The Burnet Road Burrito is ample and filling, if bland: massive applications of their fresh, bright, and almost fruity salsa are absolutely required to choke this puppy down.
Why does everyhound always hate up on the 'works? This place isn't bad at all. I like their beef ribs and I especially like their sausage -- super dry, kinda spicy, hmmm, sort of like dried dog food? Uh oh.
* Habana Calle 6
I have tried to find this place on two different occassions. Still haven't been. I must be an idiot.
* Casino El Camino
Yes, it is true, they really know how to make a delicious thick-and-hearty burger. An absolute Austin classic. I hope they can keep the quality high during the SXSW barrage they are no doubt about to undergo. If you're craving an L.A.-style skinny-and-snappy burger, this ain't the place -- instead, try P. Terry's on Lamar.
* Las Manitas
It ain't bad, but it ain't real good! However, this is probably your last chance to go before this classic piece of Austin is destroyed forever... just don't go expecting the world's best Mexican food.
* The Boiling Pot
Never been, pass.
* Angie's Mexican Restaurant
More-than-capable carnitas; I can't quite put this place at the top of my list, but I definitely prefer it for deliciousness over Las Manitas.
Another Austin institution. Their serrano pepper cheese spinach is actually pretty darn good; their BBQ is by no means bad. Most times I eat here, I'm at a show and have probably had many beers. This may have warped my opinion to more positive than is deserved. Probably on the Green Mesquite level on the tasty scale (i.e. Ironworks is better).
Decent. If you go, their baked macaroni and cheese is probably their best item overall. Their hanger steak (a great cut of beef, by the way) is pretty good, too. Their brunch is overrated, but very, very filling.
* Chez Nous
Best restauraunt on this list, as far as I'm concerned. I love this place. If you want lardons on the salade lyonaisse, you'll have to specifically ask for them. If your waiter doesn't know what lardons are, instruct them to request bacon on your salad. The kitchen will know what that means.
* Casa de Luz
* Star Seeds
ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE. This should not be on anyone's list. So dirty you'll need a tetanus shot after you leave, food so mediocre you'll wish you'd gone to the Kettle.
* Bouldin Creek Coffee House & Cafe
Completely forgettable menu alongside very Austiny slow service; if you've come this far South, might as well trek all the way to Green Muse (Oltorf & 1st) which is better than Bouldin in every conceivable way as far as coffee houses go.
Austin institution. Be smart. Avoid this place during SXSW, as it will be packed to the brim (as will Kerbey Lane, which is about as good). Food like Star Seeds, only much better (although really freaking far from Darn Good).
* "Feeling Spendy" ideas...
+ La Traviata
Wrong! Heh. Go to Vespaio instead, which is much better. However, be prepared for an epic wait.
+ Eddie V's
Wrong! Heh, that was even more fun the second time. If you're craving a great steak, hit Mars instead for a delicious beef tenderloin cooked medium rare. The rest of their options ain't bad either. If you're craving awesome seafood, well, let me know where you found it in Austin. Quality Seafood on Airport is your best bet for affordable-but-good seafood in town. For expensive-and-worth-it, I have no idea; see MPH's reviews of Backstage Steakhouse.
+ Shoreline Grill
+ Roaring Fork
Expensive and mediocre. Skip. If you're looking for a more affordable, better take on Southwestern-style upscale cuisine, Castle Hill is your friend (although some here do not agree, please note).
re: tom in austin
Thanks for the reply!
I've been to Kerbey Lane and Magnolia numerous times and it makes sense why they'd be crowded during SXSW, everyone knows about them.
Ooh, and I should've said this in my initial post: the places towards the end of the article didn't really interest me. I'm a college student, so spendy is out of the question, moreso looking for fast and preferably cheap. Casino El Camino sounded interesting, but the idea of waiting an hour isn't thrilling.
I also saw that it's on 6th, so another thing that might help is my itinerary. It has a little mini map of where I plan on going, and the venues I plan to hit are all pretty much along 6th or Red River. I'll definitely look out for the places around there which you gave positives to!
re: tom in austin
ironworks beef ribs
magnolia's love veggies
la traviata's chicken panini and their spaghetti bolognese — but only for lunch, not worth it for dinner. (on another note, i like vespaio but for what they charge i always leave feeling like i'm missing something.)
i don't get:
moonshine. it's stupid. and expensive.
the boiling pot. it's stupid. and expensive.
las cazuelas on east cesar chavez for pretty much any mexican food you could possibly want until 3:30 am on weekends! they serve real tacos, like in mexico, with the double layers of corn tortillas. also they have the largest menu i've ever seen. everyone in your party will find something they are craving.
re: tom in austin
Hi Tom...I was the one who wrote that guide.
The main purpose was to give some decent-to-good choices of places to eat at, and places out of towners could go to on foot. With the key point being: you can get there without a car! These are all places Downtown, and on the eastern side of Downtown, or on Congress. It's not meant to be the "These Are Best Places In Austin" guide as I know just how how divided opinion can get!
The "spendy" list is what I came up with after trying do to some research on Chowhound. What I wrote up is exactly the choices that other 'hounds gave in other threads -- where were you then, huh? :)
I think Star Seeds and Bouldin Creek have great atmospheres and thought the food was pretty good the few times I've gone. More of an "experience" if you will...As for Star Seeds, I've never felt it to be super unclean or unsanitary when I've been there. Then again, it was probably late at night.
I've been to La Traviata and liked it, in fact, I think it was Yimay who took me there. Yimay, can you remember?
As for Castle Hill, I've also gone there and liked the food, but it was a LONG trek if you're walking.
k, i love la traviata! though for what it is, i think it's too expensive for dinner. i think i did take you there (with dj?)! that was the only time i've been there for dinner and, like i said, too expensive. lunch is the way to go. i had some bean soup there one time too that knocked me out of my chair.
another mentionable is guero's fish tacos on south congress. also they have the best margaritas in town = not sweet (which is key to a good margarita in my book.)
I thought I was the only one who had similar impressions about the margaritas (oh, Centenario) at Guero's–I can't stand many of the sweeter versions that prevail out there, and generally opt for a mexican martini instead. I also relegate my entree choice at Guero's to either the fish tacos (w/ cheese and guac) or the alambres. Ever had the quail? I haven't and would like to know if it's worth trying. Oops, almost forgot the al Mojo de Ajo–how could I possibly forget a dish that makes you smell like garlic for three days after?
Greetings, Kathryn. Nice guide! Any friend of Yimay's...
Re: your "spendy" list; I'm a relative newbie to Chowhound, having only showed up in the past six months or less. It is sad to learn that at some point before I got here, Eddie V's and Roaring Fork were considered Spendy Faves Near Downtown. If you've got mad cash and are on-foot only, Aquarelle is close, next door to the best scotch selection in Austin (Opal Divine's), across the street from another fun bar (Mother Egan's). I prefer Chez Nous, but there you go. Also in walking distance for those feeling spendy is Driskill Grill, which is pretty good but massively overpriced. Also worth considering in the spendyzone is Louie's 106.
For those who have money to burn, you should also have cash for a cab. Roll down to Uchi, which should top the spendy list. If Austin was enrolled in a multi-city "Battle of the Restaurants", Uchi would probably be our best bet. Wink+Wink Wine Bar is also on Lamar and pretty darn good, although sometimes freakishly off their game. Vespaio/Enoteca is/are very excellent as well, located on SoCo in the Gueros/HomeSlice/SoCoCafe zone. Craving Indian? Near Mars is the Clay Pit; pretty tasty. Between them is a classic Austin bar, the Dog & Duck. Have a pint of Guinness for me.
Re: Bouldin. Its outdoor atmosphere is better than Green Muse (solely due to Muse living in a strip center), but I prefer Muse as a place to spend an hour or two on my laptop, drinking coffee or draft beer.
Finally, I think Star Seeds seems very artsy and punk, so it gets a better rep than is deserved. There is nothing exceptional about the place, other than it is affordable. Worse, after about 1 AM you can expect the waits to be upwards of 1.5 hours for seating. Absolutely lame. Hey, check it out! A mix of dirty, tattoo'd burnouts and disinterested hipsters staff the place! Great! But the food is somewhere between miserable and boring, just like the art for sale on the walls.
Groovy website (sxswbaby.com); keep up the good work. Also, thanks for replying. I think these things are tons more fun when the author gets involved.
re: tom in austin
A few places I haven't seen mentioned:
- Pecan St Cafe, right there on 6th and Trinity. Not stunning food, but decent if you want an actual plate of food and a tablecloth in between bands, instead of standing in the street.
- the Worst stand, also somewhere near 6th and Trinity. Those things are huge, a meal in themselves.
- Clay Pit for Happy Hour - not totally downtown (1600 Guadalupe?) but half-price appetizers at the bar make for a good early dinner.
- The Fox & Hound has taken over the old Hard Rock location: an accursed chain I know, but $2 pints at Happy Hour and a decent philly cheese.
To an earlier poster: Habana Calle is the old Empanada Parlor, on 6th where it crosses Waller Creek.
Cheers, and enjoy South By! I know I will.
Though chowhound is mentioned by Kathryn as a source for her research, I don’t see much common ground between the “SxSW Baby!” site and what’s considered delicious on this board. There doesn’t have to be a connection, of course. This link doesn’t take you to an official chowhound top-ten list. It’s just a list of what one person has enjoyed while visiting SxSW in Austin, plus expensive places that must have sounded good. The suggestions are focused on popular places that are convenient to downtown.
My take on the recommendations given in the link: Only Casino El Camino is a must-not-miss destination, and I second tom in austin’s opinions on what’s “absolutely unacceptable.”
However, instead of commenting at length on the recommendations of some blog, I’ll simply suggest that dedicated chowhounds visiting SxSW will be rewarded with great chow if they move out of the usual tourist-comfort zones. At least for a couple of meals.
There’s no consensus on what’s best, but these recent threads contain good discussions of what’s delicious in Austin.
I hope everyone enjoys some delicious chow while visiting SxSW!
I appreciate your suggestions, but the thing is, SXSW is so busy that I'd like to know what is fast and convenient around the area, as well as the places which locals definitely like visiting. That way, I'll know what names I need to be on the lookout for when I am walking around in hunger, plus no having to worry about having to find a parking spot if I do leave.
That makes absolute sense, air. I just wanted to point out that what's fast and convenient is not always very good. I also assume that other people will be reading the thread that you started. Visitors and attendees who find themselves with some downtime might want to know about things off the beaten path.
MPH: Thanks for the links!
My research, well...I just did a few searches on "downtown" eats and a few names seemed to pop up multiple times, although the posts I read spanned several years. Also, I was probably writing the guide in the wee hours of the morning...not that it's an excuse.
I prefer to think of the guide as a way to prevent people from ending up at PF Chang's (shudder). The places may not be OMG AMAZING FANTASTIC A++++ WOULD EAT THERE AGAIN!!!! but I have found something tasty there in all of them.
And my poor NYC soul doesn't get good Tex-Mex or BBQ a whole lot somaybe I have lower standards.
Like air says below, I find SXSW is *so* manic that it's impossible to get out of the tourist-comfort zone. I'd rather have a full belly of decent, solid food than wait an hour for a cab that might not come, order food, eat, wait for another cab that might never come, and consequently miss out on a film or a few good bands or seeing my friends, etc.
(Seriously, cabs during SXSW? It's not too bad getting out of downtown if you hang out in front of a hotel, but getting back to 6th street? They either promise they're almost there and then never show up, or never come at all, or the driver thinks that there's too much traffic and doesn't want to take you 10-15 freaking blocks. Or you almost get into a fistfight with someone in trying to snag one (happened to some friends of mine last year). Ugh.)
I rely on my own two feet and consequently, anything a few blocks past Congress, 12th, or I-35 is too far to go without wheels. Alas. One of these days I promise I'll come to Austin during a less crazy time.
As a former Austinite who was in town for part of SXSW (the interactive part), I think your selection criteria was just fine. Sure, there may be better more distant choices but I (and most everybody else there) had to rely on feet to get around. Cabs (and this was even before it got really crazy) were sparse at best. There's usually not a lot of time before you have to be somewhere else, meet people, or get back to your room and drop things off. Even if you did have a car as a I did, using it meant giving up that precious parking space it had taken you 30 minutes to find (the garages shift mostly to "by day" charges with no in/out privileges). And when I'm on foot I don't have to worry about driving home at the end of the evening. Plus, there didn't seem to be any other decent listings of where to eat available to most folks so I'm sure it was much appreciated by all.
David "Zeb" Cook
I'm always confused as to how far from downtown to recommend restaurants. I'll make a plug for the Burnet corridor - Billy's, Maru, The Omlettetry (sp?), Susan's, Mi Victoria, Austin Cafe - hit or miss but usually the specials are good, The Frisco, Dog Almighty and on and on. You only need to take the #3 bus and get off at 45th st. and shop and eat your way up.
Fish & Chips at the Dog & Duck.
Seared Tuna bento @ Fuse Box
Green Curry @ Madam Mam's
Austin's Pizza on 12th - I am a big fan of the California
Nau's Pharmacy - right on griddle burgers, grilled cheese, milkshakes
Dirty Martin's burgers & onion rings
Ruby's BBQ - bring your fat pants
I lived in Austin for four years, and miss the food dearly.
Las Manitas on congress is the best place in Austin for Brunch. The chorizo is amazing, and they pickle their own jalepenos. It's very cheap too.
Gueros on South Congress has good Guacamole, shrimp fish tacos, and margaritas.
Maria's also on South Congress has the best tacos.
The Clay Pit on Lamar has good Indian.
East Side Cafe has a very good brunch.
Chuy's can be a bit much, but it still has good food....it's on Barton Springs Blvd.
SXSW has certainly detonated the city. Good lord. Trying to make reservations tonight has been daunting.
Also, despite ellinwoo's good intentions, I'd advise you to avoid many of her suggestions during SXSW. Places like Guero's and Chuy's are going to be madhouses, and most of her suggestions involve a cab ride or a very long hike. (Also, I may be wrong about what she is referring to, but if she means Maria's Taco Express, the place is on South Lamar, not South Congress.)
re: tom in austin
Good lord is right. I was with a couple of friends last night having a few pints at the GingerMan, and then we decided to go find some grub. Myself and one other in our group live to eat, the other two from SF were simply just starving and *needed* to eat. Everyplace in that area had about an hour wait except for ... Capitol Brasserie. I almost felt bad for them when they asked us if we had reservations, when the restaurant was almost 3/4 empty. Almost as if they were pretending that all the empty tables were actually spoken for or something. I had a mediocre cassoulet that, while reasonably tasty, fell short on several levels when one examines it as a cassoulet. But I have had decent steaks there (and the $25 fixed-price is a good deal), and if caught in that area during the fest, it might not be a bad place to stop if you're without reservations.
I love cassoulet, and was looking forward to trying theirs. Sad to hear.
CB seems very confused. I hope they figure it out, as their hours are very favorable. (They've reduced their hours recently, but they're still open later than most fine dining options.)
I got the braised lamb last time I went, and it was pretty good. Not great, but definitely decent.
re: tom in austin
Just for further detail, I'll tell you that the cassoulet was essentially a duck leg (confit) in a shallow bowl/plate of white beans and a few chunks of sausage. The confit was tasty, but the white beans were rather flavourless and mushy. Not sure what kind of beans they used, but I've noticed that most restaurants tend not to use the fancy beans (ie. tarbais) and instead use any old kind of white beans. This cassoulet also didn't utilize toulouse sausage, rather some other kind, which didn't really add anything, and further, there was no addition of any pork belly. So basically, it lacked much of the richness that characterizes a good cassoulet. I also prefer it served in a crock. Having said all that, it was still pretty tasty, just not in the context of it being cassoulet.
I went there a couple of nights ago (Wed evening, I believe), and it was about 1/8 full (if that). I've heard somewhere (maybe on this board at some point) that it has recently changed hands. Clearly, this change is not good.
To start, we had the salad lyonnaise, which was topped with a delicious dressing and lots of lardons (love those). It's one of my favorite things at CB.
We also had the cheese and charcuterie plate, one of my favorite things to order. However, they seem to be skimping on it. It used to come with TONS of food -- 5 or 6 pieces of blood sausage, a big chunk of head cheese, lots of proscuitto, and usually one other meat, with 3-4 types of interesting cheeses. This plate was *much* smaller, with only 2-3 pieces of blood sausage, and small portions of the other meats, and cheeses that were not very exciting. It was very disappointing!
We also ordered the oysters, which were $16 (for 6). The oysters themselves were good (from Prince Edward Island, I believe), but they were covered in an onion-flavored vinagarette that did nothing but mask their fresh flavor. Plus, the oysters were just tiny, tiny things. Again, I know these oysters run small, but in combination with our smaller-than-expected charcuterie plate, we left feeling a bit hungry.
Other signs they may be going downhill: (1) our regular (excellent) waitress was not there, and in her place was this poor guy who always seems like it's his first night (spilled wine all over the table, brought the oysters out last when we asked for them first, etc.) Good servers tend to leave when business isn't good. (2) We waited at the door five minutes before anyone noticed us. (3) They were out of several bottles of wine (leading me to believe they are pairing down their wine selection.) Again, all of these signs by themselves may just be bad luck, but taken together, I don't predict a good outcome for the Brasserie.
Anyway, CB just moved off my list of favorite places to eat late at night. I don't think we'll be going back any time soon.
Two optimally delicious barbecue restaurants that are relatively near the Sixth Street/downtown area are Sam's on East 12th and House Park Barbecue on West 12th. Sam's is a east Texas style place, serving brisket, sausage, pork ribs, chicken and mutton, all sauced while they smoke. It's open late ('till 2am weekdays and 3am weekends) and is housed in a really run down building in an iffy part of town.
House Park Barbecue is on 12th just east of Lamar and serves central Texas style brisket, chicken, sausage and pork loin in a smoke saturated, tiny little building near the Tavern. It's first rate stuff for Austin, not up to the standards of Lockhart but the best you can do in the city limits, IMO. Open only for lunch on weekdays; not open weekends.
Neither one of these places is really walking distance but they're both short cab rides, and they're cool little slices of Austin and of Texas. I highly recommend both.
I'm back in Dallas now, and here's what I've got to say.
I hit Taco Shack several times because I was around that area every morning. Great morning fuel, and I was surprised that it wasn't too crowded when I went.
My friend took me to Player's on MLK and if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have known that it's a good late night alternative. I definitely knew to stay away from the huge crowds at Kerbey Lane and Magnolia. However, managed to get seated at Kerbey on saturday night (St. Patty's Day) within 10 minutes, so that wasn't too bad.
Earlier on saturday, drove to Lockhart for lunch and visited Kreuz for the first time in way too many years. Very amazed at the quality of the 'cue, and I know I definitely need to try out the other local legends in the future.
Taco Shack is super-convenient, isn't it? Funny, the only other people I ever saw there were either local businessmen or volunteers.
Kruez' was closed on Sunday when my friends and I finally made it out to Lockhart, but the pork ribs at Smitty's (oh, that sauce) made up for it.
I managed to eat at Chez Nous twice during SXSW. I guess the closed-off streets and lack of parking prevented the usual clientele from getting there. The meals were good - I had the same both times: duck paté with fresh bread as a starter, a decent steak cooked to order and a small vegetable / potato side dish - all for $24. Vin de table starts at $20, so quite affordable. I shall be back ... if I can get in!