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CHOW Tour Austin, Your Thoughts On Where to Go?

Hi Austin Chowhounds,

In a few weeks, myself and CHOW video producer Blake Smith are heading down to Austin as part of the next CHOW Tour. We're looking to create some CHOW videos about the Austin food scene, and plan to focus on chefs and restaurants that specialize in handcrafted food. We'd love to find special, off-the-beaten-path stuff to cover, but that said, we don't want to miss out on key stuff like great BBQ! We'll have about a week in town.

Here's a few ideas we have from interviewing some Austin folks, and skimming the boards:

-Trailer scene: This looks amazing! Some places that we are thinking of hitting up: Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, G'Raj Mahal, La Boite, East Side Kings?

-Tex-Mex: Where should we go? It seems like a heavily debated topic. Old Azteca, Fonda San Miguel (for brunch??), and Maudie's have been suggested to us. Is there any place that does interesting homemade foods?

-BBQ: How do we narrow this down? We were thinking of going to a newer wave place (Franklin?) and something old school (maybe the Salt Lick)?

-Exploring a few newer places that are shaping a sort of neo-Austin cuisine, like Foreign and Domestic, Olivia?

-Are there specific regional dishes that we shouldn't miss? We're hearing a lot of rumors about breakfast tacos and chilaquiles. And queso.

-What are your thoughts on the wine country outside of the city? Anything worth a trip?

-What are we missing that really defines the food around Austin? Which chefs/restaurants would you really want to see covered?

Thanks so much,
Roxanne Webber of CHOW.com

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Fonda San Miguel Restaurant
2330 W North Loop Blvd, Austin, TX 78756

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  1. I'd definitely go to Koriente which is Asian-Fusion (more or less). And the Bouldin Creek Coffee House for breakfast. Salt Lick always works, but I think it's too far away. But that might just be me ;)

    -----
    Bouldin Creek Coffee House
    1501 S 1st St, Austin, TX 78704

    Koriente Restaurant
    621 E 7th St, Austin, TX 78701

    1. Wow. Is this a loaded post. As you can probably surmise, we Austinites are very passionate and opinionated.

      I would say the trailer scene is very unique here and I'd hit as many of them as you can. Franklin's is a must for both bbq and trailer scene (although they may be in the perm. building by then). I love-love-love Odd Duck (again they have a building now too). Both are b.y.o.b.

      The ones I can't recommend are Fonda SM and Salt Lick, although I'd actually say Salt Lick (Spicewood location ONLY) for the ambiance. You'll feel you've done something very Texas bbq (but then can see it isn't when you've had Franklin's). FSM is "fancy" interior Mexican and extremely over-priced. I just can't recommend it.

      Neo-Austin would have to be Uchi or Uchiko. They both have outstanding fusion sushi, etc. One is a cute little house on the south side, the other more modern (and new, too) and a bit quieter in my opinion. Olivia for brunch is very good and a very "Austiny" vibe. Lambert's has an excellent brunch as well and is also very "Austiny".

      Tex-Mex...ah, this is where two camps set in - the Texas "brown gravy" Tex-Mex and the "red sauce/ fajita" camp. We've argued that till the cows have come home (and then argued about bbq when the cows get home). I'm of the latter and would suggest Polvo's (let the mud-slinging begin) if you can sit out on the patio; great bang-for-your-buck guajillo fajitas.

      We have a local expert, scrumptiouschef, who is a wealth of good information, especially on the tacos in Austin. Trust him to whatever he says. Heck, see if he'll take you on a tour.

      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/677432

      Don't let anyone talk you into the Oasis. Yes, it's a landmark. Yes, the food is horrible.

      -----
      Uchi Restaurant
      801 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704

      18 Replies
      1. re: amysuehere

        Thanks amysuehere! Your response is really helpful. If we were going to compare the two sides of Tex-Mex, what restaurant would be a good representation of the "brown gravy" camp? What dishes should we order respectively to get a feel for the style? And is there such a thing as "farm to table" type Tex-Mex or does that just sound crazy?

        One other question: How about late night food/bar food?

        Thanks for your help!

        1. re: Roxanne Webber

          I really wouldn't be the one to ask about the brown gravy (Tom in Austin - aren't you a brown gravy camper?). However, my uneducated guess would be Dart Bowl or (cringe) Matt's El Rancho (I am now going to go home and take a searing hot shower for saying that). I would think ordering enchiladas at each place would be a good representation. At Polvo's, the enchiladas de la casa (extra guajillo sauce, please) is quite good. Not as good as the guajillo fajitas, but brown gravy places won't have good fajitas at all.

          Farm to table Tex Mex. Kind of an oxymoron, as Tex Mex is usually a pork fat rules kind of meal.

          Late night has changed considerably since I was into the scene, but I'm sure my fellow younger-hipper chowhounders would be able to steer you to great late-night places. My first instinct would be to say you should try El Casino el Camino. It's very old school cool and the serrano burger used to be one of the best burgers in town. However, it's my understanding late night dining has become much more sophisticated recently.

          1. re: amysuehere

            If Roxanne is seeking the kind of culinary acumen that involves opening a bag of frozen french fries, dumping them into a fryer and calling it a day then Casino el Camino is a great choice.

            The good eating days over there are done.

            1. re: scrumptiouschef

              My age is showing. I rarely make it past 11 these days...and I'm only 43. How sad.

              Actually, if we're strictly talking burger (and a great ambiance) NOT late night, my favorite right now is Red's Porch serrano burger and spicy fries, but it's really a fair weather destination.

              1. re: scrumptiouschef

                say it ain't so, chef.
                I haven't been in over a year, and my Amarillo burger (i think that is the name of the one with all the serranos) was great.
                What about the burgers there, now?

                1. re: TroyTempest

                  If I wait 45 mins for a burger it better be awesome. last time I was there it was far from that. I much prefer the burgers at the tap room in san marcos.

                  1. re: chrisdds98

                    I think there needs to be some details as to what is making their burgers now crappy. Aside from the aforementioned frozen fries, why are the burgers no good? Not trying to start arguments, but see whats up. I was there about 8 mos ago, and my buffalo burger was pretty good (not as juicy, little too much bun but still enjoyable and satisfying in that burger way), but I also had been drinking a fair amount so that obviously would cloud judgement.

                    Perhaps there needs to be a new thread to decide the new places to go for burger goodness?

              2. re: amysuehere

                I do love it, but Austin's "brown gravy Tex-Mex" is weaker than the West Texan fare I grew up eating.

                Jorge's on Hancock, Enchiladas Y Mas, Tamale House #3, Matt's El Rancho, La Reyna, Flores, and a few other places often championed by others that have never really done it for me (El Patio, El Gallo, etc.) represent the spirit of this cuisine. But we're in Austin, might as well cave and accept Austiny Tex-Mex, which is totally different than West Texan Tex-Mex.

                Which, by the way, is darn good. El Meson on Burleson, Angie's, Mi Ranchito, Rosita's Al Pastor, Habanero on Oltorf, and (pardon, I know many disagree) Curra's on Oltorf are all solid selections. Carnitas, pibil, pastor, chilorio, and various moles are all waiting for you, intrepid explorer. Temporarily erase what you're expecting from "Tex-Mex" and explore these joints. You can also get this cuisine at Fonda San Miguel; more ritzy, full bar, extremely expensive. Some of their dishes are better for the price, but many others are worse. Example: the cochinita pibil is better at both Curra's and El Meson. I also prefer the mole poblano at Curra's and Flores to the Fonda variant, as well as El Meson's mole pipian.

                MPH was the king of analysis for this subject, and I yield the floor to him if he arrives.

                Roxanne, if you really want to grok the "Chow Spirit" of Austin, I hope you'll do more than trailers and local chains! So much great food is waiting for you!

                -----
                Matt's El Rancho
                2613 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704

                Tamale House
                5003 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX 78751

                El Gallo Restaurant
                2910 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704

                El Meson
                5808 Burleson Rd, Austin, TX 78744

                Fonda San Miguel Restaurant
                2330 W North Loop Blvd, Austin, TX 78756

                1. re: tom in austin

                  Thanks. I am going to look into you "Austiny Tex-Mex" suggestions right now! We certainly aim to cover more than trailers and local chains, though it seems like we'd be remiss to leave them out.

                  I'd love to know what other places you think of as being "only in Austin" restaurants.

                  1. re: Roxanne Webber

                    The most "only in Austin" food you can get in Austin and the surrounding area is BBQ, specifically, smoked brisket. Everything else that is great in Austin came from somewhere else and (arguably) has a superior variant elsewhere.

                    Our Texan beef culture's roots, however, are well documented. Note that Austin isn't the point of origin for this. Much as St. Louis is "The Gateway to the West", Austin is the approximate gateway to mesquite country as it transitions from hickory country, while remaining at the intersection of post oak and pecan. More than any wood, the copious availability of mesquite defines our local bbq. Critically, it is also the gateway to cattle rancher and cattle herder country, along with hundreds of years of poor ranchers, herders, cowboys, and plains folk who had to make something delicious out of the tougher meats. Parallels can and have been made to other great need-driven food tropes (primer inter pares being French cuisine), although Hill Country bbq definitely doesn't offer anything like the diversity. What it does offer is a profound technique to take things available all around you in and turn them into melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. Anyway, my point is that when it comes to food, Aesop was right, necessity is the mother of invention, and this pattern repeats over and over. Austin today, being a city of plenty, doesn't offer much internal innovation, but our bbq excellence comes from tougher times; it is hard-won and genuine.

                    If you insist on staying within Austin city limits, your obvious top pick right now is Franklin, which will get you double Austin points as it is also a trailer.

                    If you'll leave town, I can report that my current top pick (for once in my life) lines up w/ Texas Monthly. I've been to Snow's a half-dozen times and have had three near-religious experiences, two really good, and one meh. Given how erratic BBQ can be, this is by far the best brisket score of any place I've ever been. This includes topping Cooper's (two locations), Kreuz, Smitty's, Black's, Louie Mueller's, and Luling City Market, to drop only the "big name" joints. Obviously, as a degenerate eater and fan of the cuisine, I have also crushed brisket at innumerable other places. Snow's is my favorite for brisket.

                    I don't recommend the Salt Lick for the food, and I think overexpansion has punished the charm of the place as well, although it is a no-doubt beloved Austin experience. (Be warned that the Salt Lick is in the city of Driftwood, however.)

                    Other local joints that I like include Ruby's, Sam's, and Iron Works. I don't really like the brisket at any of these places, though.

                    If Austin has a claim on any other form of cuisine, I don't know of it. I love our more excellent restaurants, but nothing Parkside, Odd Duck, Wink, Perla, et al are doing isn't being done in California. And Hudson on the Bend's wild game dishes are well at home in more than one Colorado haute joint. And Uchi/Uchiko are freaking amazing, but definitely nothing new to NYC or LA. And all our Mexican came from elsewhere. And so on and so on and so on. That doesn't mean we don't have some great options for these things, but we can't lay claim to "Only In Austin!" status.

                    Now, having nothing to do with Chow, there is the Austin slogan (*shudder*) "Keep Austin Weird" which will pervade a little funkiness, levity, and counter-culture into many otherwise pedestrian eateries. Shady Grove, Chuy's, Hula Hut, Freddy's, Amy's, and so many more have a practiced approach to manufacturing this vibe; other places (Polvo's, Curra's, Boudin Creek Coffee House, the Alamo Drafthouse, Tamale House #3, etc.) come about the Austin hipster miasma much more genuinely. But this has nothing to do with food, and often I find that when other factors like these are important, the food can take backseat and even suffer.

                    If you're dead set on Keeping Austin Weird, it isn't hard. Here is the recipe: Get up at 1 PM, don't take a bath, and go eat some store-bought chips and bad salsa at Polvo's. Be amused at the poor service and that they auto-grat parties of four with no warning. If I were you, I wouldn't waste one precious meal from your finite set of opportunities on such an experience, but then again, I live here.

                    Good luck and happy 'hounding!

                    -

                    P.S. Tree demographics below. If someone has a more current source than this (other than my childhood Ranger Rick card collection), please reply with a link!

                    http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/lit...

                    1. re: tom in austin

                      Well put, Tom! Wholeheartedly agree!

                      In the "food ain't so hot, but very Austin, agree with all above and would add Ski Shores (in the spring/summer/fall, which is why I didn't add it), chicken s**t bingo at Ginny's. I would actually vote Red's Porch (which has a killer burger and fries, a better view and all the Austin vibe of the others) over Shady Grove or Freddy's. But, Freddy's has the free bbq and the nice oak tree, so...

                      1. re: amysuehere

                        I agree, Amysue, and I'm not trying to throw out the definitive "Keep Austin Weird" list. Maybe folks should pile on and brainstorm that list here, since I'm not really the man for that job.

                        1. re: tom in austin

                          Not to digress (well, yes)...I miss Les Amis - THE old school Austin destination.

                          On a wet winter morning, peasant's lunch by the wood-burning stove...sigh...

                      2. re: tom in austin

                        Tom's post above reminds me of chowhound from a few years ago.

                        Wildly opinionated and able to back it up with facts.

                        We've lost most of the posters from x # of years ago but there are still a few wily hounds out there.

                        LixLix?

                        1. re: tom in austin

                          " More than any wood, the copious availability of mesquite defines our local bbq."

                          Wha...??? No way. No decent barbecue place uses mesquite. It's gotta be oak. Mesquite burns too hot, doesn't give you good coals, and imparts a nasty resiny flavor. Check out the woodpile at any good bbq place, and you'll see stacks of OAK.

                          1. re: Bat Guano

                            Bat Guano is right. One of the only places that uses mesquite is Cooper's, and you see how that turns out.

                            1. re: Modorecords2003

                              Guano, Modo--

                              Oak and hickory are used abundantly in Deep South-style barbecue. I'm not saying they aren't used in Hill Country BBQ, but when you're in Central Texas you have the intersection of post oak, hickory, pecan, and mesquite. All of them are used in the cuisine, depending on availability and/or taste. In my opinion, mesquite is the defining wood since this smoke flavor is totally absent from Deep South-style barbecue. It is also, again in my opinion, very distinct.

                              Also, remember that this Central and West Texan cattle culture isn't defined by our modern favorite barbecue restaurants. Oak is unavailable on many of the cattle trails and ranches going up out of the Hill Country and through West Texas and the Panhandle, while mesquite is readily available. This is where this method of smoked brisket originated. Just because Black's doesn't use it doesn't mean it isn't the most authentic method.

                              Post oak:
                              http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/lit...

                              Mesquite:
                              http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/lit...

                              Pecan:
                              http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/lit...

                              Lastly, IMHO, Cooper's is pretty darn good, although less so recently (YMMV). For a couple year stretch, they were putting out better brisket than I was getting from the Lockhart trifecta. Also, welcome to Chowhound, Modo! Hope you stick around and make some posts about your chow experiences around Austin!

                              P.S.
                              In case you don't mean post oak, but instead mean red or white, here they are as well:
                              http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/lit...
                              http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/lit...
                              http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/lit...

              3. I'm not an Austinite, but a "durned Californian" (as I've been lovingly monikered on this board!) and was in Austin for 4 days over NYE weekend. We tried 3 bbq places: Sam's, Artz's, and Ruby's. Sam's was wonderful for the mutton, brisket very good. Artz's was kick-ass for pork baby back ribs, quantity and quality of sides,but brisket a bit dry - and didn't love their bbq sauce overall. Ruby's was OUTSTANDINGLY STELLAR for juicy, tender, flavorful brisket, and very good for ribs; good sauce, good sides. We wanted to try Franklin's but they were closed and in between locations.

                Trailer scene: I can only talk about the few we visited: Chi'lantro (meh for korean tacos); Surf & Turf Po' Boys (great catfish); Eastside Kings (fantastic beets, waaaay too greasy curry buns), and Pueblo Viejo (breakfast taco - very tasty chorizo taco, good but not spicy hot sauce.)

                Wish we'd had more time!

                1. As for BBQ,
                  Why don't you take an afternoon and make the 26 mile drive to Lockhart for some of the state's best BBQ places. All within minutes of each other. Search this board, you'll find thousands of entries about which are the best, but you could hit 'em all.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: TroyTempest

                    If I may add any exploration of the "Austin" food scene would have to include a bit of the amazing vegan and vegterian restrauants we have here.

                    1. re: girloftheworld

                      Great idea, I'd love to include a vegan or vegetarian restaurant, what do you recommend?

                      1. re: Roxanne Webber

                        my sister is the vegi- her favs are
                        Mother’s Café & Garden( kind of a tradition I even find stuff there I like!)
                        Kerbby Lane( not all veggi but famous and fun)
                        Le Soleil (not as "austinie" but good food
                        Madras Pavilion( Not as "austinie" but good food)
                        The Vegan Yacht( I find it charming and fun mostly organic 6th street food cart)

                        1. re: girloftheworld

                          I'd add Mr. Natural to the vegi restaurant list, too. Funky, diverse, super-austin-y, vegetarian Tex-Mex. It's on Cesar Chavez not far from downtown. And maybe Swad, too, in North Central Austin for dosas and idli. It's the only restaurant in Austin that approximates my experience of southern india food.

                        2. re: Roxanne Webber

                          Roxanne, most of the vegetarian restaurants recommended in this thread are disgusting. Austin's best vegetarian food is at non-vegetarian restaurants; this has been the case since the solid West Lynn Cafe was closed. (Owned by the Mother's team, it achieved something Mother's still has not: offering food that doesn't taste like it has been rolled in dirt.)

                          La Soleil and sister restaurant Sunflower are both pretty good for Austin Vietnamese, but wouldn't move the needle for anyone who has been to NYC, LA, or San Francisco. If you're desperate for bánh mì, maybe just hit Tam Deli.

                          -----
                          Tam Deli & Cafe
                          8222 N Lamar Blvd Ste D33, Austin, TX 78753

                          1. re: tom in austin

                            i would throw Somnio's into the category of a non-vegetarian resto w/ great vegetarian/vegan food. They're into local movement thing. excellent salads. had delicious grilled Brussels sprouts and glazed kohlrabi last night.

                            -----
                            Somnio's Cafe
                            1807 S 1st St, Austin, TX 78704

                          2. re: Roxanne Webber

                            Casa de Luz is a macrobiotic vegan hippie place that has super-beautiful gardens. This is not just a restaurant, they have other buildings where they have yoga classes and other crazy-hippie stuff. It's almost scene-y, in its way. Don't bring carnivore friends.

                      2. Our favorite place is Chuy's. Yes I know ther are a few in town. But it's a good bang for your buck. Their sauces are delicious and they will make anything for you made to order.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: karmar40

                          Chuy's is my guilty pleasure. However, there are only a few things I'd say are worth it.

                          1) get the jalapeno ranch with your salsa fresca (don't get the nasty carrot stuff)
                          2) Enchiladas and chile rellenos are generally awful
                          3) Order the steak burrito, Elvis chicken, chuychanga, or the mexi-cobb (sub beef fajita and extra green chile)
                          4) Get a mexican martini