New to Town
Walking tours of Downtown eats
Welcome to the Austin, Texas, version of March Madness – that marvelous time of year when the weather (usually) moderates and thousands of people descend on River City to participate in and/or appreciate basketball, rodeo, independent film, live music, interactive media, and track and field. Because most of these activities take place in the central city, contributing Food writers Mick Vann, Kate Thornberry, Claudia Alarcón, Rachel Feit, and I divided the area into walkable neighborhoods and scouted out the eateries that are most likely new since everyone visited last spring. So, whether you're a video gamer, a film or basketball fanatic, or a cowgirl, we've got some easily accessible dining destinations all mapped out for you. Bon appétit!
– Virginia B. Wood
Downtown: West of Congress, North of Sixth
El Chilito Numero Dos (918 Congress, 291-3120, www.elchilito.com) is a little brother to the popular El Chile on Manor Road, which is famous for its tacos (especially San Antonio-style puffy tacos) and burritos. You can get them stuffed with all of the usual fillings, including orange-achiote pork and tortilla-crusted fried fish. Chips and salsa are $2.39, and for drinks, consider beer, sangria, espresso, aguas frescas, and soft drinks; fresh fruit paletas (frozen fruit pops) are also a plus. This location is open for breakfast and lunch only.
The Onion Late-Night Pizza (116 W. Fifth, 476-6466, www.onionbaby.com) is a slice-peddling pizzeria that's taking on the more established slice windows Downtown and garnering a good deal of acclaim with its pizza, calzones, salads, and pizza rolls.
24 Diner (600 N. Lamar, 472-5400, www.24diner.com) offers "chef-inspired comfort food," including breakfast served all day and treats like pork belly sandwiches, chicken and waffles, great burgers, meat loaf, pot pies, and copious sides. Prices are reasonable for the quality of the ingredients, and the portions are ample. There's a complete wine list, and you'll be sitting right next door to the best independent record store in the country.
Star Bar (600 W. Sixth, 477-8550) got a recent redo with lots of glass, leather banquettes, and a third patio. Drinks are the same as they ever were, with a reputation for being strong and a little on the pricey side (but shaker leftovers are passed along to you). It has really amped up the wine selections, including sparkling and half bottles. Food is from Ranch 616 next door: Order with your server, and Ranch will deliver it (think midpriced South Texas cuisine).
Emerald City Press' (915 N. Lamar, 472-6660, www.emeraldcitypress.com) sign advertises "Coffee, Flowers, News," but there's also drive-through and walk-up service and a small wi-fi patio. A hipster hangout conveniently located right across the street from Cheapo Discs, this place has a menu that includes bottled beers and wine, coffee and espresso, teas, Italian sodas, soft drinks, and agave lemonade. Prepared foods are procured from Austin's faves: Upper Crust pastries, tacos from Tacodeli, Ken's Donuts for holes and samosas, Hot Jumbo Bagels, pizza slices from East Side Pies, Austin Nuts, Butter's Brownies, Vosges Chocolates, fresh fruit, etc.
The Screaming Goat (900 W. 10th, 477-GOAT, www.thescreaminggoat.com) is famous for its flautas ahogados: flautas drowned in a thin red chile sauce and topped with cheese (like a taco and a semicrunchy enchilada and saucy soup all in one) and an assortment of fillings. This place follows the recent and blasphemous trend of charging for chips and salsa, but crowds in and out will be wolfing down tacos and burgers with the usual sides and washing everything down with ice-cold beer.
Sentelli's Bakery (814 W. 12th, 236-1720, www.austinsweets.com) is a collaboration of a team of bakers who have created desserts at some of the top hotels in town. Crowds go nuts for the kolaches, pastries, cakes by the slice, and now, excellent pizza by the slice or whole pies. Custom cakes are the main thrust here; the crowd pleasers are lagniappe. There's fresh-brewed coffee to balance the sweets. – Mick Vann
Downtown: West of Congress, South of Sixth
In the 19th century, this area was ground zero for Austin's infamous Red Light District, known as Guy Town. In later years it became a slum, then home to light industry and warehouses. During the past decade, those aging commercial buildings have been replaced by a spanking new City Hall (literally built on the site of a former brothel!), offices, and plenty of tony high-rise condos. And it should come as no surprise that the heart of Austin's rapidly developing condo district also has plenty of dining options, with something new available almost every month.
La Condesa (400-A W. Second, 499-0300, www.lacondesaaustin.com) is a stunning restaurant serving genuinely innovative neo-Mexican cuisine. Do order the spicy guava pork ribs or the lamb barbacoa baked in a maguey leaf. Brunch is also a tempting option, especially with the spring sun streaming in through magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows. If the dessert options here don't appeal, head across the street to Teuscher Chocolates & Coffee (409 W. Second, 236-1657, www.teuscheraustin.com) for some of its signature Champagne truffles. But beware – a meal at La Condesa followed by Teuscher truffles doesn't come cheap.
For a quick bite that does less damage to your wallet, try a slice from Z Pizza (452 W. Second, 472-9800, www.zpizza.com). This California-based franchise operation serves thin pizzas with toppings that range from the standard pepperoni and cheese to curried chicken, yams, and mango chutney. Both tomato sauce and crust are made with organic ingredients, and there are plenty of vegetarian options.
Around the corner on Third Street, Austin sandwich institution ThunderCloud Subs (360 Nueces #180, 472-7827, www.thundercloud.com) offers a large and diverse selection from the convenient walk-up window every day, and light snacks and sandwiches can also be had starting at 4pm at Blu (360 Nueces, 904-5666, www.bluaustin.com), a cafe and bar that features live music just about every night of the week. In that same block, two trendy new restaurants are making a name for themselves: mulberry (360 Nueces #20, 320-0297, www.mulberryaustin.com) and Garrido's (360 Nueces #10, 320-8226, www.garridosaustin.com). Mulberry is a tiny, urban neighborhood cafe serving eclectic American fare such as cherry-flecked braised pork belly and lentils, and salmon topped with citrus pesto over couscous. Garrido's is the newest venture from longtime Jeffrey's Executive Chef David Garrido, who traded in the white-glove milieu for a more casual environment reflecting his Mexican roots. On a sunny afternoon, there are few places finer than Garrido's creekside patio on which to sip mojitos and nosh on tacos de carnitas, shrimp chilaquiles, or Garrido's signature dish, fried oysters on yucca chips topped with habanero aioli.
OK, so you're having menu fatigue and just want to grab something to eat on the hoof or take back to the hotel? The Royal Blue Grocery (247 W. Third and 360 Nueces, www.royalbluegrocery.com) and Walton's Fancy and Staple (609 W. Sixth, www.waltonsfancyandstaple.com) are two new grocers that offer excellent sandwiches, pizzas, and takeout items, in addition to gourmet microwavable packaged meals. Royal Blue has a weekly wine tasting on Thursdays, 5-7pm. Walton's, the newest venture in actress Sandra Bullock's crowded business portfolio, bakes its own breads fresh daily. And speaking of stars, don't overlook Juan Pelota Cafe (400 Nueces), the coffee shop and juice bar attached to Lance Armstrong's bike shop, Mellow Johnny's. Finally, no day would be complete without a cupcake. Head to Delish Bakery (209 W. Third, 473-4118, www.delish-cupcakes.com) for one generously topped with lemon buttercream or Mexican vanilla icing. – Rachel Feit
Downtown: East of Congress
Start at Max's Wine Dive (207 San Jacinto, 904-0111, www.maxswinedive.com), the Houston-based eatery that specializes in "gourmet comfort food" for dinner, including Kobe beef pot roast, and weekend brunches with buttermilk-and-jalapeño-marinated fried chicken and waffles, complemented by spectacular wines by the bottle, by the glass, or for retail from the extensive list. In that same block, you'll find Piranha Killer Sushi (207 San Jacinto #202, 473-8775, www.piranhakillersushi.com), an award-winning North Texas import that prides itself on "over-delivering" to the customer by serving sushi that's original, stunning to look at, and delicious. Though the emphasis is on sushi and sashimi, there are many other Japanese dishes on the menu as well. Not far away, try Le Cafe Crêpe (200-A San Jacinto, 480-0084, www.cafecrepeofaustin.com), a full-service espresso and coffee shop that specializes in crêpes for breakfast, lunch, and dessert.
The well-traveled Cedar Door (201 Brazos, 473-3712, www.cedardooraustin.com) has been physically moved (building and all) four times as Austin has continued to boom over the last 35 years. At the most recent location on Brazos, the menu and hours have been expanded, making this legendary watering hole appreciated for its chow as much as for its Mexican martinis.
New on the Avenue, you'll find Annies Cafe & Bar (319 Congress, 472-1884, www.anniescafebar.com) in a beautifully restored historic building. Annies does the whole shebang: early breakfast, lunch, dinner, takeout, and late night, as well as a full bar.
The Old Pecan Street Cafe (504-B Trinity, 478-2491, www.oldpecanstcafe.com) was a driving force in the rediscovery and eventual preservation of Austin's historic Downtown when it opened on East Sixth Street in 1972. The restaurant recently moved a block east to a new location, but it is still serving up the crêpes, cakes, and other Continental standards that brought it to national attention in the 1980s. El Sol y la Luna (600 E. Sixth, 444-7770, www.elsolylalunaaustin.com) is one of a handful of restaurants that turned South Congress into a dining destination, but then chose to expand by moving its operation Downtown last year. Along with an expanded menu and more seating, it now offers live music along with full bar service and the terrific, inexpensive Latin American cuisine that won it a loyal SoCo following. Texas Embassy (709 E. Sixth, 443-4252, www.texasembassyaustin.com) serves familiar sports bar grub such as chicken-fried steak, burgers, ribs, wings, and nachos, and the kitchen staff prides itself on taking the cuisine seriously and using the best possible ingredients. And Habana Calle 6 shares the building, so wonderfully authentic Cuban fare is available in-house, as well, if you feel like enjoying something a little more exotic.
The only bar in the new and ultra-hip Rainey Street neighborhood offering a bite to eat is Lustre Pearl (97 Rainey, 469-0400, www.lustrepearlaustin.com), where you'll find dude food that includes Philly cheesesteaks, nachos, chips and queso, "Bad Ass" burritos, fries, and tacos, plus a turkey wrap and a couple of vegetarian options for the less dudely. Or you can drop into the new Town Market (43 Rainey, 499-TOWN, www.townmarketaustin.com) on the street level of the Legacy condos for upscale groceries, local prepared foods, fresh pastries, and beer and wine during the day. – Kate Thornberry
East of I-35: Downtown to Campus
Just east of the highway near the Convention Center, the Gulf Coast-style fare and vibe at Shuck Shack (1808 E. Cesar Chavez, 472-4242, www.shuckshack.com) are sure to please, especially on a sunny afternoon when you can enjoy an ice-cold beer and some grilled oysters or spicy shrimp while playing a game of horseshoes. For more relaxed diners, a table in the lushly landscaped patio is hard to beat. The menu features a full bar, with great Bloody Marys to start your day right.
Closer in to Downtown, you'll find Buenos Aires Cafe (1201 E. Sixth, 382-1189, www.buenosairescafe.com), which serves traditional Argentine cuisine including salads, soups and sandwiches, awesome empanadas, and sinfully delicious pastries. Dinner entrées lean toward meats and pastas, but there are also fish and daily specials. Beer and wine are available, and there's a cute little wine bar where you can sit and hang.
A block east is the hot newcomer East Side Show Room (1100 E. Sixth, 467-4280, www.eastsideshowroom.com), a spectacular space displaying original art and handmade metalwork, plus fantastic mixology and a small bistro-like menu. You can't go wrong with the Showroom Special for happy hour: a cheese and charcuterie platter served with two ice-cold shots of gin or aquavit for $12.
There's also the HOPE Market (relocated to East Sixth & Waller for March 14 & 21 only), open Sundays 11am-3pm, which features a host of local vendors with everything from ready-made foods, coffee and pastries, veggies and fruit to arts & crafts, entertainment, and community resources. It's hard to get any more Austin than that.
A bit farther east, the newly reopened Hot Mama's Espresso Bar (2401 E. Sixth, 476-MAMA, www.hotmamasaustin.com) is a good spot for a quick coffee pick-me-up in a laid-back lounge atmosphere. Beverage highlights include the signature coffee drinks (try the Mexican Mocha, spiced with cinnamon and cayenne), lavender lemonade, and yerba maté tea, and beer and wine are also available to enjoy there or take out. Fare consists of breakfast tacos, salads, sandwiches, and other light items with an international and Middle Eastern flair.
I'm especially happy with the new location of Rio's Brazilian Cafe (408 N. Pleasant Valley Rd., 828-6617, www.riosofaustin.com) just a few blocks away. The space is small, cozy, and totally bossa nova. The menu includes the popular salgadinho pastries, cheese breads, tropical salads, and even breakfast pockets with many vegetarian and gluten-free options. Drink choices include Brazilian sodas and local faves Casa Brasil coffee and Zhi Tea. Beer and wine are coming soon. There's plenty of parking and a patio where the cafe promises to feature Brazilian music (and World Cup soccer).
Justine's Brasserie (4710 E. Fifth, 385-2900, www.justines1937.com) will require a serious but worthwhile cab ride. This very cool bistro boasts a small menu of affordable, authentic French bistro fare, accompanied by killer cocktails and atmosphere with music selections from the owner's impressive vinyl collection. Out front, the restored 1930s cottage boasts a large brick patio with tiny cafe tables, a pétanque court (the French version of bocce), and plenty of street parking. The kitchen stays open until 1:30am, so it's a great option for late-night munching and a last-call cocktail in the neighborhood.
Farther north and due east of the University of Texas campus, you can grab an affordably priced lunch at Joe's Place (1814 E. MLK, 472-3105, www.joefood.biz) during the middle of weekdays – or enjoy great coffee drinks, local prepared foods, and free wi-fi access 24/7 a few blocks farther east at Bennu Coffee (2001 E. MLK, 478-4700, www.bennucoffee.com). – Claudia Alarcón