There are many things we love at the shrine of Southern Comfort Food, but the baskets of warm, fresh breads that arrive with every meal remind us of a trip to Grandma's. We know it might spoil our dinner, but we've been known to inhale the whole thing: big, steaming slabs of cornbread, pillowy hot beer batter biscuits, and the dainty yeast rolls, too. Just keep that butter coming.
Chef/owner Ruben Rodriguez is a wizard with peppers, drawing salsa addicts back to his cozy South Austin dining spot to see what new concoctions he's putting on the table. We crave the roasted tomato and jalapeño combo and their crunchy vegetables in tart, fiery homemade escabeche. We're also partial to the creamy black bean and sour cream salsa with the warm afterburn. And there must be a spot in the Hot-As-Hell Hall of Fame for the innocent-looking caribe pepper salsa that hits the taste buds like molten lava.
...Or, Restaurant Most Resembling The Peach Pit. If you squint hard, some of the waiters look like Dylan, and most of the waitstaff is mod enough to let you pretend you're in some trashy L.A. suburb. They also have some of the best gourmet coffee around and they offer a huge outdoor smoking section. So celebrate Austin's youth culture - that means coffeehouses at $2 a cup instead of coffee shops at 65cents - while you rent your lungs to the devil. The best part is, your smoke-fest never has to end - Brazil is a welcome addition to Austin's astonishingly abbreviated selection of 24-hour joints.
Like pizza, burgers are another subject we at the Chronicle rarely agree on. But out of this passionate and carnivorous debate, Mad Dog & Beans emerges as a consistently fine burger joint. Burgers are their main business: hearty, juicy patties grilled to perfection, available in a tantalizing range of suggested combos, or topped however you like 'em - a genuine temple dedicated to a great American fast food.
Zesty and succulent, the marinated breast of chicken at Guero's can be downright addictive and is best enjoyed rolled into a tortilla, and maybe spiced with one of the restaurant's tantalizing sauces. To our palate, it comes awfully close to God's own taco al carbon - and at a nice price to boot.
Whether fried or steamed, Chinese dumplings will never qualify as health food - too many ground-up pig parts, we're afraid. But love is blind, as is our lust for China Palace's version of these morsels: tender envelopes of dough encasing a savory filling whose origins we prefer not to dwell on. Duck sauce would be gilding the lily, but we can dream, can't we?
Roumaldo Hernandez and Robert Martinez are brothers-in-law of that chef who dare not speak his name, Jorge Arrendondo. After working with Jorge for many years, the brothers opened their own place last month and have already secured a star in our personal heaven on the strength of their outstanding chorizo migas. Breakfast is served all day, but if you must have dinner, the green chicken enchiladas are your next best bet.
A quick burger lunch at Holiday House's drive-thru window one Friday turned into Nightmare on Airport Boulevard. Never ones to shrink at confrontation, we complained mightily to a machine recording at their business offices. Lo and behold, the restaurant owner and real estate king Ralph Moreland responded personally with a prompt phone call, an apology, a letter, and a gift certificate. That's good customer service.
908 E. Fourth, Lampassas
With the imminent debut of Threadgill's Pecan Pie ice cream via the Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream company, Eddie Wilson, original mastermind of the Armadillo World Headquarters and now the owner of Threadgill's, is now poised with the ideal product to become a post-hippie cultural icon for the Nineties. Given the charm of the low-tech commercials he's made for his frozen vegetable business, ice cream may well be the ticket that takes this longtime local personality into the national public pantheon. What's next - Gordo's Three Alarm Chili ice cream?
Do you know where your next meal is coming from? You do if you buy your fruits and vegetables at the South Austin Farmer's Market, the only local market that requires vendors to have grown everything they sell. At other markets, you might be taking home produce from California, Mexico, or who knows where. Here, the farmers are your neighbors and many now offer organic produce, too. (Open Saturdays only, 8am-1pm, year 'round).
Admittedly, proximity to Chronicle headquarters was a factor in this award. But at least three of our editors - whose Chinese food standards were set, respectively, in the Chinatowns of Honolulu, San Francisco, and New York - make this a regular lunch option, and for good reason. While the dishes may not be adventurous, they're tasty, dependable in their quality, and priced so even underpaid journalists can afford them. The seafood puffs are a standout, and yes, they do have duck sauce.
7015 Village Center Dr., 512/502-8445
2400 S. Congress, 512/442-2354
2701 E. Seventh, 512/478-7328
10710 Research #200, 512/794-8221
6900 Brodie, 512/891-8900
11521 FM 620 N., 512/249-0558
2508 E. Riverside, 512/448-3544
201 FM 685 N., Pflugerville, 512/251-0002
1080 E. 290, Elgin, 512/285-4168
500 Canyon Ridge Dr., 512/973-8143
5808 Burnet, 512/453-8864
7112 Ed Bluestein #125, 512/926-1491
9414 N Lamar, 512/835-5400
600 W. William Cannon, 512/447-5544
6001 W. Parmer, 512/249-0400
5800 W. Slaughter, 512/301-9770
We concur with countless Austin restaurateurs who feature this definitive caramel custard made by the local Flan Queen. More exotic flavors include chocolate Kahlua, pecan cream cheese, and pumpkin, which many folks have made their holiday dessert of choice. ¡Estamos encantados!
We can't get enough of these tasty morsels and we never fail to ask for them if we're here at suppertime. Maybe it's the seasoned breading, the tangy tomato flavor, or the cold beer to wash them down. Maybe it's all the above and the fact that we don't have to fry them ourselves.
Are you tired of broccoli with garlic sauce? Or spinach with oyster sauce? In other words, all the standard variations of cancer-retarding vegetables we stuff down our gullets to stay healthy? Try this dish - tangy deep green leaves lightly stir-fried with garlic. It could become a weekly prescription.
For starters, there's the organically fed, chemical-free beef from which they make their succulent chopped beef, brisket, and ribs. But that's just one of the reasons to love Ruby's. How 'bout those toothsome smoked chickens, fresh salads, Cajun specialties, righteous skins-on hash browns, and killer desserts (not to mention the new breakfasts by Steve Chaney of Nick's Diner/Big Mamou fame)? How 'bout Muddy or 'Trane blasting from the box as Pat and Luke sweat it out behind the counter, delivering yet another succulent batch of ribs to our waiting gullets? How 'bout live music in the beer garden out back? How 'bout seconds?
Literally, Huevos Borrachos means drunken eggs or eggs cooked in beer. What arrives at your table are eggs scrambled with onions, jalapeños, and tomatoes with no gooey cheese trying to disguise stale corn tortilla strips. Come on, leave those tired migas behind. Or at least give them a rest.
This bright, sunny, little cafe, usually filled with families and regulars who chat with each other across the tables, is the home of the con queso breakfast ($4.95), consisting of two eggs any style smothered with chili con queso and served with carne guisada. Also recommended for its stellar breakfast tacos and really hot picante sauce.
Though the migas are masterful, it's not just the food that makes Cisco's an essential part of the Austin experience. For decades, this Eastside breakfast joint has served as heart and hub of the concentric rings of power that, for better or worse, have guided this part of the world for longer than many of us can remember. Of course, owner Rudy Cisneros has been there all along - presiding, gathering stories, greeting every customer like an old friend. Now he's put the restaurant up for sale, with himself as part of the deal - we say it's an Austin tradition worth preserving at any price.
Austin natives Jake and Arnette Knippa really know their business and it shows - in the gorgeous local produce, the carefully selected stock of international gourmet treats, the fine wine and deli departments, and the exceptional meat market. We wouldn't dream of getting our fresh holiday turkey anywhere else.
The rest of the country now knows what we've known for years: that Sunday brunch at this elegant fonda is the best weekend spread in town. The sumptuous feast of specialties from the Mexican Interior is one that we prefer to savor at a leisurely pace. And after all, $18.95 is a bargain for a mid-day trip to Mexico.
Our favorite Eastside barbecue joint is the one we sneak off to when we're dodging the spousal food police. Sam's routinely offers all the drippy, juicy barbecue you could ever dream of, but when they have mutton, it's a treat beyond words. The downside: you always leave Sam's with that heady, smoky aroma clinging to you. An astute nose can bust you for less.
You got your Coke in a can, Coke in a plastic bottle, soda fountain Coke, Coke in a glass bottle, and every once in a while you stumble across a real Coke. That's Coke syrup and carbonated water, hand stirred. And who'd a-thunk we'd find a good old-fashioned Coke at a brewpub? Surprisingly, it's the best old-fashioned Coke we've had in years.
Horchata (pronounced or-cha-ta) is a unique rice milk beverage that can rival a banana smoothie if properly made and served as it is at Bejuco's, a well known eatery that provides more interior Mexican cuisine than most Eastside spots. Sweet to the palate and served in large glasses with lots of ice, horchata is one of the finest ways to beat the dog days. Bejuco's sprinkles a bit of cinnamon on the frothy top of their horchata drinks, and the added zip makes the sweet thirst-quenching Mexican "milkshake without ice cream" a perfect way to wind up one of those days in the summer sun at Chicano Park.
Sometimes it does seem that Thai Kitchen's hottest dishes favor heat just a bit too much over flavor, but then again, sometimes heat is just what the appetite craves. At peak levels, their Southeast Asian specialties offer a purgative sensation, blasting your buds and opening the pores, turning a mere fine meal into an ancient rite of sensation and cleansing.
Take some of the better homemade flour tortillas in town, a genuinely friendly family, and a kitchen that churns out consistently good Tex-Mex and you have the makings of a secret that we've been loathe to share until now. The coffee is always fresh, the ambience cheery, and the staff ready to share their newspaper with the next reader who happens along. But the nopalitos with eggs are what keep us coming back. Prepared with a superb tomato-based sauce, the succulent cactus is never slippery as it can be when too hastily cooked. Folded into fluffy scrambled eggs, it's a dream breakfast come true.
Maybe your heart's desire can still be won with a burger and fries. But if you're past voting age, we recommend Chez Nous's crevettes au safran (shrimp sauteed with sun-dried tomatoes and white wine), accompanied by pomme du fin, the French version of potato puffs - although only the crassest of boors would suggest a connection between these suave continental spuds and their ugly American counterparts. End things with a chocolate mousse and skip the Maurice Chevalier impression. Bon soir et bonne chance.
We gripe about the long waits. We complain about the slacker-style wait service (read: pleasant, but slow). At least one of us had apoplexy when they went non-smoking. But we always head to Kerbey Lane Central for the smoked chicken tacos, the chipotle chicken plate, the daily pancake special, and the endless rounds of coffee and tea while gossiping about Gibby's latest misadventure or where someone last saw Jennie Garth.
Kerbey Lane Cafe
3704 Kerbey, 512/451-1436
13435 Hwy. 183 N. #415, 512/258-7757
2606 Guadalupe, 512/477-5717
4301 W. William Cannon, 512/899-1500
3003 S. Lamar, 512/445-4451
2120 N. Mays, Round Rock, 512/879-2827
701 Capital of TX Hwy. S., 512/879-2820
2200 Aldrich #100, 512/879-2818
Any day at the 21 Austin Community Gardens locations some industrious gardener's bumper crop could mean locally grown goodies for the right barter. Call 458-2009 to see where to post your "tomatoes wanted" flyer and what you can trade. (South Austin Farmers Market also has ripe, juicy ones grown right here in town.)
No, no, not the kind that are shaped into, well, you know. Dr. Chocolate (who moved over by Central Market) has the most exquisite chocolate-dipped strawberries, which some of us consider aphrodisiac (smear them on your lover's lips and kiss it off). Think chocolate-dipped strawberries are passé? The good Dr. also has chocolate-dipped blueberries to make you swoon. We also like their inexpensive edible gifts like chocolate CDs, alphabet letters, etc. How about a chocolate newspaper?
Fearing that downtown might become too "Paris-like" (which we translate as charming, colorful, and memorable) the city bureaucracy and the Landmark Commission have successfully conspired to outlaw sidewalk cafes on Congress Avenue. But by putting their tables on a patio set back from the avenue's sidewalk, Hickory Street has managed to retain the only outdoor seating on Congress Avenue. Beyond its admirable tenacity in the al fresco wars, this spot has been one of the most popular eateries on the avenue for almost twelve years and a distinguished top contender in the Chronicle's Best Burger Survey.
In this new age of prohibition, cigarette smokers find themselves with few choices when it comes to dining out, with cigar smokers even more hard-pressed for a safe haven. Smoking speakeasies - private clubs for smokers only - will no doubt soon be popping up downtown. Until then, the cigar room at Louie's 106 offers a civilized spot to enjoy a double Corona and a cognac. Louie's thoughtfully offers cigars for sale.
The great pizza debate is an ongoing battle at the Chronicle, so you can bet that any pizza-related "Best Of" will never be unanimous. But Brick Oven's thin-crust pie gets its due this year, if only because good brick- and stone-oven pizza ranks high in any pizza fanatic's pantheon. Offering that critical mix of crunchiness and chewiness, with a light touch on the sauce and extras (we like the artichoke alfredo and the steak pies), it compares favorably to the thin crust pizzas served in such hallowed New York pizzerias as John's and Arturo's - which is good enough for us to call a temporary truce anyway.
When we turn off Lyons Road and pull up under the ancient oak tree, it's as if the city surrounding this organic oasis just up and disappears. We love the tomatoes, the herbs, the vegetables, the honey, and the yard eggs. It's local, it's seasonal, it's organic - and it doesn't come any better than this.
Huge, moist, Veracruz-style tamales come wrapped in banana leaves instead of the traditional corn shucks. Choose from chicken, beef, cheese, pork, pineapple, or raisin fillings at $1.75 a pop, $5.50 for a plate with rice and beans, or $15 a dozen. Sound pricey? It's not. These overbuilt babies weigh in at a whopping four pounds per dozen!
Adieu and adios. Two of our favorite dining spots passed into history this year and boy, do we miss 'em. Not much likelihood that G/M will resurface, but Nick's wild chef Steve Chaney has reappeared cooking breakfasts at Ruby's Barbeque. He doesn't do his renowned Hangtown Fry yet, but says he will if Luke will spring for oysters.
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