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First Time in Austin - What not to miss?

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hi all!

I am venturing to your lovely city to see if I want to relocate. Seeing as I am coming from Chicago - which has some GREAT food, I need to get a taste of Austin.

We will be staying downtown and would like to hit some areas within the city - since I am a city dweller. :-)

Any recs on upscale dining - veggie/vegan - Tex Mex - sit down breakfasts - unique experiences - etc? My mom is with me this time so although Hole in the Walls are my favs, she will get freaked.

thanks so much and I am so excited about coming to visit!

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  1. Well, since you'll be downtown, I'd rec Manuel's on Congress for their happy hour. Half-priced appetizers are a real treat. I suggest the chicken mole, huegos and chiviche.

    1 Reply
    1. re: amysuehere

      The "must try" is Nu Age, on exposition. Vegan gourmet cuisine, and everything is terrific; especially the Thai Tofu Wraps.

      I agree about Manuels, on Congress Ave between 3rd and 4th Streets.. Not quite as elegant as Fonda San Miguel, but much better value for money, and located in the "entertainment district" for an enjoyable stroll after dinner. Walk West on 4th Street, and then back to Congress and walk East on 6th Street.

      Please skip Threadgills. For vegetables, all my Moms adore Eastside, on Manor (pronounced may-nor) Road, just east of I-35. They have a garden in back that is fun to stroll. Get reservations: 512-476-5858.

    2. A few rec's from me:
      Upscale Dining-Eddie V's; Vespaio
      Breakfast-Las Manitas Avenue Cafe
      Veggie-Thai Passion, Shady Grove
      Tex Mex-Guero's; Maudie's
      Casual-Moonshine

      1. t
        Tha Groovin' Gourmet

        Seeing as Chitown is a serious foodie city, here are a couple of places I would take a Windy City 'hound to make the best impression:

        Castle Hill - unpretentious New American, reasonably priced

        Fonda San Miguel - we are big fans of Rick Bayless, and Miguel Ravago of FSM is every bit the expert on real Mex cooking. The Sunday brunch is an experience not to be missed

        And I'll probably get slammed, but everyone should go to Threadgill's at least once. Great place for a veggie fix, and the history is inarguable.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Tha Groovin' Gourmet

          I second all of these, including Threadgill's - I haven't figured out the recent bias of the trendy against it. If anything, Threadgill's is even better now than back when it *really* looked like an old Gulf station. The veggie dishes are super.

          For TexMex, a lot of native Texans (including me) think Las Colinas (way up on Mesa on the NW side of town) is hands-down the best TexMex in the city. They certainly have the best Chiles Rellenos, and are packed to overflowing the sidewalk benches on Thursday (the famous Stuffed Avacado Special) and Friday nights, so get there early or pick another evening to avoid the wait. Not open on weekends, because they don't have to be - yep, they're that good.

          1. re: Dub Dublin

            I don't belong to "the trendy," so I can't explain why "they" don't like Threadgill's. (Unless trendy means the general consensus on this board?) And I have no idea if the restaurant has improved on itself since it opened, since the first time I ate there was within the past five years or so.

            But, I can tell you that I think that there are other places in town that do a better job with the same kinds of food (CFS, meatloaf, fried chicken, down-home sides), such as be Tony's Southern Comfort, Gene's, and Hoover's.

            I might just check out Las Colinas, though. Thanks for that.

        2. Here are some of my thoughts. I was thinking both of typical austin places, as well as good vegetarian and local food. I stayed away from expensive joints, since you have recs for that already.

          If you find yourself in need of good cheap HEALTHY eats downtown, (just not on Sunday), hit Marakesh for some good middle eastern food. Get a mezze platter and share it, sit in the window, and watch congress avenue go by.
          It's on the west side of congress, somewhere around 8th street. I'm not saying it's a must-try, but good to know it's there if you ate too much enchilada plate for lunch.

          Las Manitas is a must for b-fast or lunch. Migas con Hongos are my fave.

          One of Austin's best bakery's, if you want breakfast or a delicious treat, is Sweetish Hill Bakery on West 6th street.

          I'm hearing great stuff about Enoteca Vespaio, the less expensive, more relaxed sister restaurant of Vespaio. What you will find there is a cultured, kind of new-austin experience. Don't know if you can reserve, so if you want to go there and not wait a long time, try an off hour. Also, they do a brunch that is very popular.

          I second Thai Passion. They're open til 3am!

          Also, Thai Tara on west 6th. Less expensive than Thai Passion, and very good. Service can be slow.

          I really like Cipollina, on West Lynn. It's upscale food, but casual, counter-service atmosphere. They have amazing pizzas and good wine. A nice place to linger and not be bothered by a waiter. Locals sit outside with their dogs while they eat prosciutto pizza. Plus you can check out the cute and desirable Clarksville neighborhood. and the pistachio cookies are mmmm-good!

          I recommend Polvo's for tex-mex for lunch or dinner. They're on the west side of S. 1st street between Oltorf and Riverside (a few minutes from downtown by car). They have a wide variety of veggie options (and when they say veggie, it doesn't mean just beans and cheese), as well as grilled fish, and the tex-mex standards, which they do very well and with an interior mexican flair. Inexpensive, but high quality. It also has a classic south austin laid-back atmosphere.

          Enjoy!

          1 Reply
          1. re: chow-a-holic

            Ditto on Pulvos. Interesting menu with some creative selections and a very good salsa bar. Eat outside on the patio.

            We really enjoyed the Texas Chili Parlor - especially the XX Chili, a really good bowl of Chili Colorado. It is located near the U of T.

          2. I also agree that Castle Hill is fantastic. I hate to overstep another recommendation but I am totally unimpressed with Maudies. I think El Chile is worth a visit (get the orange-pepper margarita- can't remember the name) as well as Polvos.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Christine

              If you are in the mood just to grab a few tacos, rather than a sit down meal, try El Chilito just down the road from El Chile, their sister restaurant.

            2. I was just in Chicago--and ate extremely well. We've had some good discussions about Austin dining going back a month to six weeks; I suggest you scroll down to read them, as the quality of discussion varies from week to week.

              I second the suggestions of The Groovin' Gourmet (excluding Threadgill’s) and others for Austin chow that can't be missed:

              Vespaio and/or Enoteca Vespaio: Their thin-crust, grilled pizza has some delicious, authentic toppings (lardo, proscicutto, truffled egg); their primi (especially the risotto) are very good; they do real Italian appetizers (like supplì); and Vespaio proper has excellent main courses, including a delicious mixed seafood grill.

              Fonda San Miguel: This is the only Mexican restaurant in Austin that can compare with Rick Bayless's amazing Mexican eateries in Chicago. God, Bayless's corn tortillas are good. Austin's own FSM lives up to the hype, though I agree that Manuel's downtown is a good alternative in a pinch.

              Eastside Cafe: This is a beautiful place, with a lovely outside garden and a well-edited gift shop. They use fresh ingredients to produce inventive, flavorful soups; perfectly cooked and creative fish specials; and a mean cherry cobbler.

              I love Bistro 88, especially for lunch, but Castle Hill has been on my list of places to try.

              We just had an interesting thread about Tex-Mex breakfasts, particularly migas: Las Manitas, Maria's Taco Express, Mi Madre's, and La Michoacana (a Mexican meat market with a take-out counter) all came up. I have to advise against Polvo's, though many Austinites love it. Their Tex-Mex breakfast dishes are sub-par, and their flour tortillas are terrible. They're very popular for their salsa bar, their vegetarian options and fish dishes, and that laid-back vibe that is very important to some. But, it's not authentic Tex-Mex, and you can find better versions of creative Mexican. I say this because Chicago has great Mexican food, and I wouldn't want you to leave here disappointed.

              You can find out-of-this-world BBQ if you drive out to Lockhart. Smitty's is my favorite option. See the other "where to eat in Austin" post this week (posted 3/22) if you want to see some recs for in-town options.

              Have a great visit!
              MPH

              14 Replies
              1. re: MPH

                Haven't been in Austin for a while, how is Cisco's these days?

                1. re: cap

                  I'm afraid I've never tried it. Have any chowhounds been there recently enough to make the comparison?

                  I'm a native Texan whose only been in Austin since August 2005. In order to minimize my consumption of bad Tex-Mex, I've focused on checking out places that get the most buzz (not the most press, which is a whole other story).

                  I don't think I've read anything about Cisco's on this board.

                  1. re: MPH

                    I think that it closed down, no?

                    1. re: MPH

                      Cisco's was still around as of a couple months ago at least. I ate there. Kinda like a tex-mex museum.

                      1. re: MPH

                        I've been in Austin for 12 years now, and I've never known anyone who has eaten at Cisco's. And me and my friends get around when it comes to eating. I'm not trying to say it's a bad place, just that it's not really talked about any more. If it's still open, my guess is that it has jumped the shark quite a while ago.

                      2. re: cap

                        I last ate at Cisco's about a year ago and decided it was not worth another visit. There are other better east Austin choices, including Angie's and Juan In a Million. If you're interested in tacos and dining al fresco, give Taco Sabroso a try.

                        1. re: cap
                          d
                          Dan in Austin

                          Beakfast and lunch only, as always:

                          1511 E 6th St
                          Austin, TX 78702
                          478-2420

                        2. re: MPH

                          I have heard that before about Polvos' breakfast, perhaps on this board, that's why I only recommended it for lunch or dinner. However, I would say the food is loved well beyond vegetarian and fish - they have a mean steak ranchera and the flautas (meat, chicken, or otherwise) are a tex-mex dream. They're not deep-fried, they're pan fried, and sprinkled lightly with some asadero cheese. I don't go for the atmosphere - sometimes I'm choking on "laid-back" in this town, but Polvo's does a good job when it comes to flavors. I say all this not to be argumentative, just to fill out my pro-Polvo's position. :)

                          1. re: chow-a-holic

                            Thanks, chow-a-holic, for your thoughtful reply. I was not planning to comment on Polvo's in this thread, since I know a lot of people love it. I also know, after reading your many posts, that your focus is food not atmosphere. Since Chicago has such good Mexican food (better than a lot of what's served here), I wanted our visitor to get a range of opinions on which local restaurants are really can't-miss and which are just pretty good.

                            I love many San Antonio Tex-Mex/Mexican restaurants, but I'm still looking for "the best of" Austin.

                            I like places that do what I consider the classic Tex-Mex basics well: breakfast dishes like migas, barbacoa, menudo, chorizo con huevo, huevos rancheros, machacado; classic lunch and dinner dishes like carne guisada, carnes asada, carnes al pastor, flautas, puffy tacos, gorditas, caldos, chiles rellenos, arroz con pollo, calabacitas, cabrito, carnitas; tacos that include some of the above as well as the less dainty cuts of "meat" like lengua, cesos, tripa, chicharrones. The basics for me include the rice, beans, guacamole, flour and corn tortillas. In Austin, Texas, there ought to be a restaurant that does all but one or two of these things right. If there is, I haven't found it.

                            I also really enjoy the creative, regional Mexican cuisine served at places like Frontera Grill in Chicago. Tex-Mex is often based on some of the same techniques and foodstuffs: Cabrito, for instance, is traditionally cooked in the same steam-roasting manner as the ubiquitous cochinita pibil. Great regional Mexican restaurants recreate Mexico's fresh corn-masa products (homemade tortillas, gorditas, etc.) and use high-quality and hard-to-find ingredients (like huitlacoche) as well as exotic chiles and spices that are not part of most Tex-Mex recipes. These restaurants often do amazing things with duck, quail, fresh fish and shellfish.

                            Like a lot of places, Polvo's is trying to do a little of both classic Tex-Mex and regional Mexican food. Ultimately, I'm not a fan because I don't think it's great at doing either.

                            MPH

                            1. re: MPH

                              Thanks for your response MPH. I had not really thought about Chicago having great Mexican food. I knew they had it, but not that it might be better than what we have.

                              I can see how with that fact, you'd want to steer someone towards more unique places. And unique as in something our region offers that is unique, vs. "Polvo's is a very 'Austin' place," which is what sometimes people are asking for.

                              I realized while reading your post that even though I grew up here, I perhaps don't have an understanding of what authentic tex-mex really is. I just have a vague sense. Your knowledge of Tex-Mex is really more thorough and based on actual dishes than mine. My local mexican food universe is awkwardly divided into a few categories -
                              1) oldschool yellow cheese 1950's gringo-mex - El Gallo, El Patio, etc. which I sometimes enjoy very much
                              2) hybrid tex-med/interior (polvo's, curra's)
                              3) fairly authentic places with nice touches that set them apart from other tex mex (example: the enchiladas rancheras at la reyna) and Evita's fall in here)
                              4) authentic tex mex found in trailitas and on the eastside with good al pastor and then other, less familiar cuts of meat, etc.
                              5) A whole world of places that serve up a mediocre, salty, heavy, fatty, flavorless, boring version of basics - sauce drenched enchiladas, chimichangas, chicken/beef tacos, nachos, and not much more interesting than that. They don't have any special touches that make me want to go back.
                              6) a whole world of places that don't exist to me because they're really about margaritas, patios, and happy hours (sorry, chuy's, baby acapulco, et al.).

                              That was just spur of the moment, but I am for some reason compelled to try to categorize things. I think it would be interesting and educational to hear how your tex-mex universe is divided up, with examples, if you think in those terms.

                              You were saying that you haven't found a place that meets all the criteria for a great tex-mex place . . . I would love to know what your runners-up are in Austin. Where do you make do for lack of such a place? In any case, I have some more eating to do before I can really talk intelligently about tex-mex with you! (not being facetious).

                              1. re: chow-a-holic

                                Chow-a-holic,

                                You write, "I had not really thought about Chicago having great Mexican food. I knew they had it, but not that it might be better than what we have."

                                Cook County, Illinois, has 1,071,740 Hispanic residents, per the latest Census. That's more than any county in Texas except Harris County (with 1,119,751). It's more than Travis County and Dallas County combined. More than Travis County and Bexar County combined. And though it's hard to find statistics on the point, Chicago's Mexican immigrant population seems much more regionally diverse than that of most Texas cities. They've got a very vibrant Mexican food scene there (and not just at the gringo-oriented, upscale level that most people think of when Chicago is mentioned).

                                Scott

                                1. re: Scott

                                  Cool! sounds like a good reason for me to go there :) And come to think of it, my favorite burrito shop around UT (in Dobie) is owned by a Mexican-American by way of Chicago.

                                  This doesn't have anything to do with tex-mex, but one time I saw some food show on TV where they traced the history of the milk shake. One place they went to was this little shop in Chicago. The proprietor was a woman from Central America, I think? She made crazy milkshakes, not like what I usually think of. Many were very healthy, with oats and coconut and stuff like that. I've always wanted to check it out if and when I ever get to head up there for another visit.

                                2. re: chow-a-holic

                                  Hi chow-a-holic,

                                  Aw shucks. . . I’m just an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to Tex-Mex and Mexican food. But, I was lucky enough to grow up eating a lot of good, San-Antonio-style home-cooking. It was the kind of unglamorous but delicious stuff that was served back when there was someone at home who could (or perhaps had to?) spend all day cooking.

                                  I’m afraid I lack your flair for categorizing Austin’s eateries, but I’ll give it a try. I divide the Tex-Mex and Mexican food scene into five basic categories: (1) authentic taco stands and take-away joints that specialize in home-style, unhealthy cooking for their largely Hispanic customers; (2) authentic restaurants, mainly on the east side, that do the same but with table service; (3) Austinized Tex-Mex / Mexican, or Mexican-inflected food that meets the dining needs of the non-Hispanic majority who spends the most money in Austin restaurants; (4) Central and South American places--Salvadoran, Colombian, Peruvian—-that also serve some Tex-Mex basics; and (5) regional Mexican (other than Norteño, which is much like Tex-Mex) restaurants, that often also offer a few Tex-Mex basics to please the masses. Like you, I’m not counting the chips-and-margaritas joints, though I know they fill a need, too.

                                  I should note that there is a wide range of options in the third category. Some of it is excellent. There are places that offer a lot of combo platters or vegetarian options but otherwise good Tex-Mex basics. (I have to admit that for me, omitting bacon grease and lard from some traditional dishes—-like refried beans, gorditas, and tortillas—-detracts from their quality.) There are places that do a kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to Mexican standards like migas, nachos, etc. Most originals can be improved upon; I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. If, however, you are the kind of person who likes the classic dishes and would rather order either huevos con chorizo or huevos con hongos or migas or chilaquiles, rather than eating something called migas that is a combination of all of the above, then you would leave disappointed.

                                  Right now I’m searching for the best options in the first two categories. I’m happy to report that I’ve found a couple of really satisfying eateries. The first is Taqueria Piedras Negras No. 2 on East Cesar Chavez at Pleasant Valley. This is a taco trailer in a parking lot where Dos Hermanos used to be. Their food is delicious. My favorite is the carne guisada, which is just stewed beef. But like any good stew (or Italian ragù or French ragout), the secret is in slow cooking to produce tender, deeply flavorful meat. At Piedras Negras, the carne is savory without being spicy, with a sauce of just the right consistency. I had it plain—-no cilantro and onions, no salsa (though their green-tomatillo salsa is very good). The meat was wonderful without the add-ons. They also make a very good, moist [pork] carnitas. Here the carnitas are made of torn chunks of pork meat, not bite-sized pieces. In carnitas, the pork is traditionally boiled and then fried in its own pork fat or lard, so it’s both tender on the inside and crispy (from the frying) on the outside. The cut of the meat they use at TPN is nice and fatty; this is no time to use lean pork. TPN’s gorditas are nice and thick, though griddle-cooked, perhaps because of the limits of what can be done in a trailer. Their refried beans also tasted just right, as did the taco with chicharrones. TPN uses Tia Rosa tortillas for their tacos. I had the corn ones, which were slightly oiled, cooked quickly on the griddle—-which both softens them and makes them more durable, and then doubled up before adding the fillings. The tacos still tasted great when I got home (the first time) and when I arrived at the park (the following ones).

                                  The other place I’ve fallen in love with is Abarrotes Mexicanos which someone on this board (maybe woodrow?) recommended as his favorite spot for migas. It’s located at 901 Tillery Street at the corner of Lyons. This place is a small convenience store with a kitchen in the back, a few communal tables, and drinks and other items for purchase. I went on Friday, forgetting that it was Lent, which led to a pleasant surprise. They were serving up the traditional Lenten Friday lunch of fried fresh fish; albóndigas de camarón, which are shrimp cakes made of dried shrimp powder, some flour, egg white, and seasonings, with a non-spicy tomato sauce; fresh nopalitos sautéed with jalapeño and onions; rice; and tortillas--all for $6.95. They were skinning the cactus paddles for the nopalitos right there in the restaurant, and they even served a sopa de lentejas (lentils), another traditional Lenten dish, instead of the usual menudo, which has tripe in it. This menu may not sound very appealing to some diners, but it is traditional. Many restaurants that cater to Mexican-Americans serve similar dinners on meatless Fridays in Lent, sometimes substituting salmon cakes for the shrimp ones. I can tell you that few places are making their nopalitos out of fresh cactus paddles: I doubt even Fonda San Miguel does that. It’s a lot of work. The grocery-store-brand-like flour tortillas, which were rubbery and bland, were the only disappointing part of the meal. I’ll have to order corn tortillas next time. AM is supposed to serve even better food at breakfast, which is hard to believe. I’m going to check it out sometime next week.

                                  I also had very good pollo al carbon (which means charcoal-grilled) at El Pollo Regio at 1928 East Riverside Drive. It came with a whole grilled onion; two delicious salsas—-an avocado-based green one and a spicy red one (I preferred the green); Mexican rice that had been flavored with chicken stock but was otherwise under-seasoned; and some nice, steamed blanditas (white-corn tortillas). I have to ask them next time where they buy them. At $11, it was quite a steal, which explains the long line of mostly Hispanic people waiting at the drive-thru to buy a chicken. (FYI: It’s much faster to park and go to the window.)

                                  Two other places that I recently tried were Porfirio’s Tacos on Holly Street and the Tacos al Pastor stand across from El Pollo Regio on East Riverside. The former is supposed to have good carne guisada, but the meat was tough and the sauce was flavorless. Just having a thick, American-style brown gravy is not enough. Their flour tortillas, though, were quite good. I’m going to go back and try another kind of taco in the next couple of weeks. TAP specializes in tacos al pastor, obviously. Theirs had more pineapple and citrus flavor than many versions, but I found the meat too dry. I should acknowledge that I only really like the Mexican-market versions of pork tacos al pastor (occasionally you find lamb, too), or pork served in the shepherd’s style. There it’s basically Mexican schwarma. Long, thin slices of meat are sliced from a large roast of marinated pork cooking vertically on a rotisserie-like spit with a pineapple on the top that drips down on the cooking pork. The kind of al pastor served here is like candied carnitas: bite-sized pieces of pork that are cooked in a skillet, though not in their own fat, from the taste of it. TAP’s carne guisada had a good stewed texture and more jalapeño than is the norm. It wasn’t bad, though I won’t be craving it again since I liked the one at Taqueria Piedras Negras much, much better. TAP's barbacoa was disappointing. It was the right idea, but the wrong cut of meat. Tex-Mex barbacoa is traditionally made of steam-roasted hog’s head. Despite being a lot of trouble to cook, much barbacoa in San Antonio (and other places) is still done that way. I don’t insist on hog’s head, but if the barbacoa is too lean, it doesn’t taste right. I liked the barbacoa better at Joe’s Bakery, but I’m still searching for my own “best of” Austin. I thought TAP’s homemade corn tortillas were very good. So, I do plan to go back—-if only to try the flour ones.

                                  In case we’re the only ones still reading this thread, I’ll post any new finds at the top of the board. And please let me (and everyone else) know of any good Tex-Mex chow that you search out.

                                  Best,
                                  MPH

                                  1. re: MPH

                                    MPH, It's been a while since I've been on the site--too much work :( -- and I just found your post. Those sound like some real gems, most of which I haven't been to, and some of which I haven't even seen. I'm gonna print it off and start working through those places you mentioned. More later!
                                    Thanks,
                                    chow-a-holic

                          2. Magnolia Cafe for breakfast is wonderful. There are two locations, one on South Congress and one on Lake Austin Blvd. Yummy pancakes! My elderly folks ate there every day and really enjoyed it.

                            For a really nice steakhouse, Flemings was a real treat. Meat was wonderful. Mom had a filet that she said was absolutely perfect and tender as butter. Best steak she said she's had in years and she lives in Vegas! I had a seared ahi tuna that was spectacular. The chocolate lava cake is perhaps the best dessert ever made by human kind.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Iptacita

                              Wrong! Magnolia sucks. You have to be really drunk to think their food is good.

                            2. Any opinions on Uchi and Kenichi? I have heard that Uchi is better for the food and Kenichi is better for the atmosphere.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Shane

                                Personally I've found Uchi superior on every level as compared to Kenichi. I've Never had sushi in Japan, but I have had it in every major city in the US, and Uchi is up there with the best. I left Kenichi feeling like I'd been slightly taken advantage of.

                                1. re: LB
                                  s
                                  Seamus Mitwurst

                                  I kinda got the same feeling from Uchi. (Alright, I'm being too harsh, in retrospect)

                                  But I shouldn't have gone there when I was wanting sushi.
                                  Everything was wonderful, but ordering omakase definitely does not fulfill a desire for sushi.

                                  When I went to Kenichi a few years back, it was good, but overpriced.

                                  Both restaurants are too cool for me. Be ready for the Uberhip Idiocrats.

                                  1. re: LB

                                    Totally agree.

                                2. k
                                  Ken in Mexico

                                  One Tex-Mex place that I've yet to see mentioned that deserves a serious recommendation is Habanero's on Oltorf between S. Congress and S. First. It is right around the corner from the wildly over-rated Polvo's. I believe that Habanero's is only open for lunch, however, and I don't think that they have a liquor license, so no beers and margs.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Ken in Mexico

                                    A recent visit to Habanero's found the grilled meat haven hitting on all cylinders. Too bad their guacamole is lousy though. It can be a great green side when you're powering through a pound or so of grilled carne.

                                    Early work by MPH above.

                                    1. re: scrumptiouschef

                                      Early EXCELLENT work by MPH above, which caused a real shock of recognition. I've never seen the Austin Mexican food dilemma laid out so cogently! I shall redouble my efforts to get to Habanero.