1998 Readers Poll
1998 Critics Picks

John Anderson

Best $8 You'll Ever Spend On Your Health

Even after they tell you the names of the foods on your plate, you won't know what half of them are: a bowl of miso-wakame soup, adukis, millet, collards, root vegetable nishime, burdock-hiziki medley, and a little umeboshi pickle. Yeah, right. Whatever it is, it looks beautiful and tastes delicious and is arguably some of the very finest macrobiotic cooking available in the United States. Casa de Luz offers a prix fixe plate lunch and dinner weekdays, and a buffet brunch weekends in a serene, friendly setting behind a Montessori school. If communal tables and New Age music are not for you, there's always take-out.

Casa de Luz
1701 Toomey

Best Authentic Chinese Experience

Looking for the real Chinese food thing, or the closest thing to it here in Austin? Check out the green and pink shack over there, yeah, the one that looks like a taqueria or a flower shop. Mmmm, here's that smell - that greasy, heavy air that fills up your nostrils and coats your skin - and there's the menu in Chinese posted in strips up on the windows. Now try the food - flat pan-fried noodles, rice soup, noodles in brown beef broth - the very stuff of Hong Kong street dining that brings the local Asian clientele flocking to the smudged glass counter. And remember, this is strictly a wooden chopstick, nothing over $5.50, serve yourself for drinks kind of joint where they bark out your name to come pick up your food, and you leave fat, greased up, and happy. You're loving it, aren't you?

5119 Burnet, 451-2345

Best Big, Honkin' Chocolate Eclairs

When you have a craving for this French pastry, Quack's will surely satisfy. No puny, petite sample, this is a Texas-sized round mound full of egg custard and covered in dark chocolate that's big enough to share with a couple friends. Some people have been known to hide while eating this delicious desert to fully enjoy this creamy experience (or keep from sharing with anyone else). A definite value for the buck!

Quack's 43rd Street Bakery
411 E. 43rd

Best Bowl Of Coffee

High Time's ample serving of New Orleans-style chicory coffee has the soft, creamy essence of marshmallow, and it's a great complement to their fabulous breakfasts, like Portabello Omelette With Tomato-Sherry Sauce and mixed green salad. Even the toast seems like someone made it with love.

Best Chain Restaurants That Have Surprisingly Good Coffee

Even in your tonier establishments, a satisfying cup o' joe can be tough to come by. So it's always a pleasure to return to these cheap eatin' institutions for food that is exactly the same as it was the last time you ate it, and have a really good cup of coffee to top it off. The coffee at Souper Salads should always be ordered after you finish your last trip to thesalad bar (so it won't sit in front of you getting cold), and drunk with a chunk or two of gingerbread; and always finish your "Lu Ann Platter" with Luby's rich, nothing-quite-like-it blend. Ahh. Now you can go back to work.

Souper Salads
10710 Research

1410 E. Anderson

Best Chain Restaurants That Have Surprisingly Good Coffee

Even in your tonier establishments, a satisfying cup o' joe can be tough to come by. So it's always a pleasure to return to these cheap eatin' institutions for food that is exactly the same as it was the last time you ate it, and have a really good cup of coffee to top it off. The coffee at Souper Salads should always be ordered after you finish your last trip to thesalad bar (so it won't sit in front of you getting cold), and drunk with a chunk or two of gingerbread; and always finish your "Lu Ann Platter" with Luby's rich, nothing-quite-like-it blend. Ahh. Now you can go back to work.

5200 Brodie

Souper Salads
2438 W. Anderson

Best Cheap Drink

In June, Austin's water was chosen as best drinking water in Central Texas by the Texas Water Utilities Association in a taste test against samples of water from other cities in the region. The water was judged on clarity, purity, and taste.

Best Chef's Apprentice

This dedicated young man seems to be pursuing a chef's apprenticeship the European way, by working his fingers to the bone in the service of resident and guest chefs alike at the Central Market Cooking School. You'd never know to look at him that he's only 14 years old, but this aspiring chef is gaining untold hours of excellent free culinary training because he's willing to work for it. We expect great things from this guy. He's making the most of the Central Market volunteer program.

Joe Synatschk
Central Market North Cooking School
4001 N. Lamar

Best Church Brunch

The brunch at St. Julia's is homemade in every aspect of the word. Breakfast is served by hustling volunteers carrying dented baking sheets stacked with handmade tortillas, empanadas, and sweet rolls, breakfast tacos, huevos, and menudo. Though the beige plastic plates, matching coffee cups, and metal folding chairs have probably been in service since the church opened in 1957, they add a coziness to the communal atmosphere created by scampering kids and hundreds of friends enjoying one anothers' company. Open to the public, Sundays, 8:30 am-1pm.

St. Julia's Catholic Church
3010 Lyons

Best Comeback

We never know where or when the indomitable Flo Washington will pop back into the Eastside culinary landscape, but we're just as happy as all her other loyal fans whenever she does. This newest incarnation offers her signature soulful downhome specialties (fried chicken, smothered pork chops, vegetables, cornbread, pie, and cake) at the usual bargain prices. Welcome back.

Best Cookbook By A Local Author

Popular local chef Miguel Ravago contributed his culinary expertise to this fascinating collection of Mexican-American immigrant family recipes written with Seattle travel coordinator Marilyn Tausend. The book garnered a Julia Child Book Award for excellence from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and Simon & Schuster plans to bring out the Spanish language version in 1999. Felicidades!

FM 2222 & Loop 360(Capital of Texas Hwy)

Best Corn Tortillas

Sometimes there is a wait for the food to arrive on the table at Amaya's; they've run out of their popular corn tortillas and they have to be made, just for your order. Thick and hot with the feel of the comal still clinging to them, these corn tortillas are great by themselves or with the delectible caldo de pollo that's a very popular menu item in the winter.

Amaya's Taco Village
5804 N I-35

Best Delivery Pizza South Of The River

They looked across the waters. They saw a land where pizza chains held dominion, and they said "Woe unto them who must subsist upon lame-ass pizza," and they begat delivery to that land; and lo, it was sustenance deemed divine, for the crust was hearth-baked; yea, the three sauces were revealed to be slow-simmered, and the people of that land said, "It is good," and they tipped their driver.

Best Dinner And A Movie

The best dinner and a movie pairing this year had to be the Alamo's first anniversary celebration. Owners Tim and Karrie League presented Alfonso Arau's romantic film Like Water for Chocolate paired with a dinner based on recipes taken from the novel that inspired the movie. The dining audience was served the delicate quails in rose sauce just as the incendiary scene in which they were featured flickered across the screen. Quite an impressive accomplishment.

Alamo Drafthouse
Alamo Drafthouse Village, 2700 W. Anderson #701, 512/861-7030
Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, 1120 S. Lamar, 512/861-7040
Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane, 5701 W. Slaughter, 512/861-7060
Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline, 14028 Hwy. 183 N., 512/861-7070

Best Downtown Breakfast In The 'Burbs

Weekends in Austin are breakfast heaven. There are so many choices! Problem is, if you're like us and wake up after 11am, by the time you get your lazy, hungry, jonesing-for-something-eggy butt out of the sack, your favorite brunching hot spot is packed. Head north to Austin Java Company's location on 183. Amidst the sprawl and strip maul, there is relief in the form of Java's familiar Eggs Benedict and c'est bon! French Toast, not to mention their comforting array of exotic Joe. What isn't familiar, however, is the fact that you don't have to wait in line for an hour while running into everyone you know.

Austin Java

Best Drive-thru

A drive through Culver's includes a viewing a sign near the drive-thru window that says the reason customers must wait longer for their food at Culver's is because it isn't pre-made. Culver's specializes in butterburgers (which means that the top of the hamburger bun is lightly buttered) and thick, stout frozen custard that every day comes in vanilla and the flavor of the day, which recently have been such exotic flavors as Glorious Grasshopper, Wholly Whoppers, and Mint Truffle. It's comforting, isn't it, to think that a fast food place would deliberately slow things down?

Culver's Frozen Custard
2240 W. Braker, 512/836-1670
3424 W. William Cannon, 512/892-1114

photograph by John Carrico   John Carrico

Best Drive-thru Malteds & Shakes

See those pillow-toting mamas? Or rather mamas-to-be? They go directly from their childbirth classes at Seton and make a beeline to Hilbert's to order one of these babies. Honest to goodness shakes and malteds that are, in a word, yummy!! Could an entire class of pregnant women be wrong about such a thing? Remember, follow a pregnant woman.

Hill-Bert's Burgers
5340 Cameron, 512/371-3717
1503 W. 35th, 512/452-3287

Best Drive-thru Pizza

Okay, okay ... so your favorite pizza isn't the same as ours, we know it's a peppery subject. But it's no toss-up that Aljon's is the best NY-style pizza in town with a drive-through window! All we have to do is call ahead for our favorite pie - say, pepperoni and mushroom, on a traditional yeasty crust cooked to cheesy, saucy perfection - and when we arrive it's boxed up and ready to sail through their window and into ours. By the time we get back home (if we've kept from reaching under the lid en route) the slices have cooled off just enough to fold and eat.

photograph by John Anderson   John Anderson

Best Gelato To Go

Is it the friendly chefs form Italy behind the counter? Is it the allure of the gigantic Sophia Loren plastered on the back wall? Is it that our tongue starts automatically speaking in Italian as soon as the lucious flavors like zabaglione (made with Marsala wine), bacio (chocolate & hazelnut), menta (mint) hit it? We just can't get enough of the light, smooth peach, lime, and limon sorbetto and the cool, crisp tropical pineapple with rum; it keeps us coming back for more. We grab it on the go whenever we're in Austin's funky warehouse district. And this summer, we discovered that Milano's is not only great on the go, but that they can come to you, too. Their spiffy refrigerated gelato cart makes it possible for them to scoop their luscious frozen wares at fairs, festivals, farmer's markets, and catered parties. Just call them up, bella, and they'll come rollin'.

Best Gelato To Stay

The patio of this Hyde Park cool spot is one of our favorite places to people-watch while we enjoy a crisp waffle cone full of ultra-creamy lemon sorbetto and sip a frothy iced cappuccino spiked with one of the many available flavored syrups and liqueurs. The "sweet life" is just what we experience when we indulge in a post-prandial visit for an elegant dessert, a scoop of gelato, and a sophisticated aperitif.

Best Gourmet Tamales

When Angele Cleopatra Stavron gave up playing bass in punk bands to go into the tamale business, some snickered as if to say, "You? Start your own company?" They're not laughing now, they're smacking their lips and belching in satisfied torpor. Angele's masa marvels are made with quality ingredients and are available in such non-traditional flavors as smoked chicken poblano, (vegan) spring vegetable, and wild mushroom with Texas goat cheese. We'll miss her when she relocates to Fort Worth later this year, but her hot tamales will still be available for delivery by ordering online.

Best Grocery Store Mega-food Court

We won't lie to you. When we first saw that the new HEB did not carry over its Chinese kitchen, we were bummed. But the overwhelming selection and the courteous and knowledgeable staff at the remodeled grocery store's new Greats! Cafe more than makes up for it. The hot food selection offers barbecue, pizza, pasta, and a variety of casseroles (our favorites are the Southwest chicken dish and the hot smoked turkey barbecue with a generous slab of their pepper-laden corncake). The salad bar is packed with a variety of lettuce, fresh veggies, and spicy cold noodle dishes. If you crave a snack or even a full meal afterhours, the refrigerated section has many of the day's favorites, plus the treats from locals Kala's Cuisine, Eat Your Greens, Marta's Flan, and Tom's Tabooley are pre-packaged for your convenience.

Hancock Center, 41st & Red River, 459-6513

Best Hearts

Year in and year out, these hardworking sisters always give from the heart to support the causes they believe in, most notably the local Latino arts community. This year in addition to providing exhibit space for La Peña's Toma Mi Corazon Heart Auction, they persuaded several hotshot chefs to donate food and opened their restaurant for a preview party that raised plenty of extra money for the arts.

Best Hippie Cookie

One might think a no-dairy dessert would be no more exciting than say, a handful of raisins, but Ronnie's Chocolate Chip Cookies are our favorites even before we look at the ingredients - a dense concoction of oats, organic flours, chocolate, a little canola oil, and some other components that shouldn't rightly turn up in a sweet. We don't really care that they might be better for us than the standard tollhouse version, just that they taste amazing. And just think... since they're vegan, we might convince mom that it's okay to eat them instead of our veggies.

Best Homestyle Lebanese Meal

The greatest addition to the usual deli-style fare at the downtown Po-Boys is the presence of owners Mom and Dad. Dad is usually hacking away at the register with a big smile on his face, while Mom works invisibly in the back preparing the daily specials of homestyle Middle Eastern cuisine (served 'til 3 pm, including chicken & rice, stuffed cabbage, and Schwarma made with 13 spices!). The food is hot, delicious, and cheap with accompanying vegetables, rice, potatoes, or exceptionally good hummus on the side; each special runs $5-6.

Best Host Chef

Both these men are highly regarded for making visiting chefs welcome in their kitchens. Celebrity chefs from all over the country who invade the Four Seasons kitchen for collaborative dinners rave about chef Prambs' hospitality and professionalism. Cookbook authors and culinary instructors who frequent the Central Market cooking school kitchen always give high marks to chef Mollett and his staff for their exemplary tactical support. We'll just have to call this one a tie.

Elmar Prambs
Four Seasons Hotel
98 San Jacinto

Roger Mollett
Central Market North Cooking School
4001 N. Lamar

Best Hot Dog

Restaurant choices along this stretch of Barton Springs Road are certainly staggering, but if a person has a jones for a hotdog, Shady Grove is the answer. Not too many establishments go to the trouble of making this old-fashioned specialty into a meal, but Shady Grove does; its deliciously grilled hotdog and a half (exactly what one would expect, a frank bisected lengthwise with another half dog lying next to it on a toasted bun), is a sufficient stopper to almost any appetite. Flanked by a side of fries, the hot dog and a half will give most diners second thoughts about ordering dessert afterward.

Best Human-scale Place To Buy Good Food

Don't get us started on the parking lot thing again, but suffice it to say that both Central Market and Whole Foods sort of terrify us, and going to either one of them feels like a major expedition. More often than not, we've already had all the super-sized multi-option mega-life we can handle in one day before we realize we need a bag of brown rice and a bunch of bananas. This is what Wheatsville is all about. Not too big, not too small, not too friendly, not too snooty - Wheatsville is just right, and really is a place you can swing into for a bag of groceries, like in the good old days. Plus it is the economic lifeline of a disproportionate number of Austin musicians, and it is always fun to buy yogurt from the bass player.

Wheatsville Food Co-op
3101 Guadalupe, 512/478-2667
4001 S. Lamar, 512/814-2888

photo by John Anderson

Best Jewish Deli Sandwich

The "Joan Rivers," a tongue, corned beef, and Swiss sandwich, with cole slaw and Russian dressing on either rye or pumpernickel, is the real deal. Order a latka or knish on the side to eat in at their recently expanded restaurant, or take home other deli classics: a container of chopped liver or an addictive vanilla egg cream.

Best Liquid Cure-All

The days of tonic touting may have passed, but we can't help but boost this distinctive juice-for-what-ails-ya. Dr. Dream's elixir, a tasty concoction of lime juice, ginger, and that miracle sniffle-stopper Echinacea, could prevent even a low pressure system from feeling under the weather. When we sense the funk coming on, we're happy to take our medicine as long as it's Immune Fuel: delicious cold or heated up to soothe sore throats (not bad to wash down a tuna sandwich with, either).

Best Little Big Bites

Tapas once meant little more than the crusty bread rounds that covered wine jugs, but they've come a long way from their modest beginning, and the Rhythm House offers a selection no one could get around in a single sitting. We love the humble patatas with their spicy little sauce when we're feeling casual and favor the ceviche served in a cool martini glass when the mood is more sophisticated. Paired with the house sangria, these are appetizers worth making a meal of.

Best New Branch On A Family Tree

We're very fond of this funky little monkey we found swinging on a branch of the Manuel's family tree. While the downtown ancestor is responsible for our favorite half-priced appetizers, Changos evolved into a very affordable taco heaven. We're partial to the rotisserie-cooked pork in adobo that fills the tacos al pastor and the delicately battered fried mahi-mahi in the Tacos del Mar stuffed with tangy cabbage slaw. All the great fillings are wrapped in divine fresh tortillas made right before our eyes. We salute the next generation! Ole!

Best New Brunch

We'll have to admit we're smitten with this classy new little jewel box of a restaurant on Kerbey Lane. In a very short time, we've become addicted to the elegant but very reasonably priced Sunday brunch menu with its savory waffle topped with spicy sausage and chile con queso or big, beautiful biscuits crowned with a tender quail and delicious gravy. We could sit here swilling Bloody Marys all day. No buffet, no parking problem, no worries.

1 Jefferson Square, 458-1248

Best New Restaurant Without A Kitchen

Leather-bound wine lists, marinated beef tenderloin with bleu cheese, staying open until 2am: All of these things make Malaga a new favorite, but the secret is that the space they occupy doesn't have an actual kitchen. For now, their tapas are being prepared in the kitchen of the old Soma space, next door. What will they do when the Blue Water Cafe opens there in October? Stay tuned.

Best New Take On The Lunchtime Noodle Bowl

It ain't always for Pho we go when we're craving a bowl of Oriental noodles, not since we discovered the homemade noodle making talent at Yen Ching, anyway. We always ask for the restaurant's main menu (the special lunch menu was created for folks in a hurry and out of the know), then choose from a handful of noodle soups - hot or cold, mild or spicy. The long, chewy nest of noodles that fill the bowl are made on order. We've never tasted 'em fresher!

Best Noodle Soup

The third location in Austin of this Vietnamese restaurant chain, Pho Cong Ly downtown has the atmosphere and freshness lacking at the other Pho joints across the city. Their Pho, a light beef stock poured over rice noodles topped with various cuts of meat in one large bowl, is served steaming and fragrant. No dishwater soup here. The accompanying lime, basil, coriander, bean sprouts, and jalapeno slices are consistently clean and fresh.

Best Peanut Butter Cookies

Heaven for pocket change. For 39¢, the Kolache Shoppe can transport your mouth (and your weight) to a higher state, leaving you feeling somehow light and fluffy. Their peanut butter cookies, with an emphasis on butter, are divine. We've always known there was something special about them - the way their delicate, almost crunchy edges give way to a soft and chewy center, the way they make our lips grow into a dazed crumb-covered smile, the way we crave them again only minutes after eating the last one. Milk was made for cookies like this. And we haven't even begun to tell you about their kolaches!

7113 Burnet, #112, 458-5542

Best Pizza Slice

Ooooh. North Austin! Do you realize what you have? Not just one but two choice pizza joints within crawling distance. Last year we waxed wistfully about Reale's - home of some of Austin's finest mom and pop Italiano cuisine. This year, we drove a little further north and got hooked on the crispy, crunchy, chewy, fold-me-in-half-and-let-me-slide-down-the-gullet goodness of this Jersey Shore pie. The shop itself recalls the best of those no-frills walk-up counters: tart sauce, flavorful cheese, and beefy dough tossers who actually say "Yo!"

Best Place To Get Cheap Breath Mints

Altoids, schmaltoids! Unless you just like the fancy tin, there's no reason not to head over to the candy aisle at Only Deals to buy roll upon roll of Trebor Extra Strong (England's No. 1 Mint) for only 33 cents each. Trebor's have an unwieldy 7/8" circumference that makes them difficult to pinch between cheek and gum, but yer yapper cleans up just as nicely.

Only Deals
118 E. Oltorf

Best Protein Fix

We know steakhouses are all the rage, but when it's red meat we need to sink our teeth into, we go the way of the little lamb. Ararat's sizzling lamb platter is protein like we like it - perfectly grilled, tooth-tender meat smothered in an incendiary Middle Eastern chili sauce. Sizzling indeed!

photograph by John Carrico   John Carrico

Best Purveyor Of Indian Imports

Not only does India Bazaar have those hard-to-find authentic ingredients (like weird beans and exotic grains), but the owner of this unusual nook of a grocery store loves to instruct those interested in the ways of spices and recipes. The small triangular frozen samosas (thin dough filled with peas and potatos) she sells are great baked or fried, and when accompanied with bright green coriander chutney, they gain a piquancy that screams of real Indian food.

Best Restaurant To Take Out-of-town Visitors To Watch The Sunset

High on a cliff overlooking Lake Travis, the restaurant's patio offers a prime view in the fading evening light of the silver lake dotted and streaked by boats winding between the hills as the sun slips away to appreciative applause of the patrons. Most importantly - the Tex-Mex food is just about as fine as anything you can get downtown.

Best Sign That Civilization Has Reached South Austin

No longer does anyone South of Slaughter have to make a trek into Westlake Hills or Central Austin to get European pastries and cakes. Chef Scott Teal makes some of the biggest, chocolatiest croissants and blueberry danishes. Besides croissants & danishes, you can get espresso, cinnamon rolls, muffins, scones, cookies, cakes, breads, eclairs, cheesecakes, wedding cakes, or salads. Tucked behind the Pizza Hut at the Southeast corner of Manchaca & Slaughter Lane, Onion Creek makes weekend mornings complete.

Best Silk Purse From A Sow's Ear

With a stack of donated materials, a little bit of money, and a lot of hard work, patio proprietors Miranda Walton and Malik Khurshid took a vacant, weedy, and downright ugly Manor Road lot and turned it into a "Relax-Station" of the first order, serving burgers, burritos, and breakfast tacos from a small stand. Okay, so it's still hard by the smog and sounds of the street, and the shade trees are a little scarce, but it's a helluva lot better than what came before.

Miranda's Patio
422 E. Sixth

Best Specialty Dish

Jimmy Perkins' photo looks out over El Patio. He ordered the same thing for so many years that it eventually got put on the menu. The Perkins special is a chalupa shell covered with taco meat under lettuce and tomatoes, then smothered in queso. We give it two yums up.

Best Summer In A Bottle

Nothing quenches a Texas thirst like lime aid, and the good folks at Goodflow sure know how to mix up this classic cooler. Just the right amount of tart and sweet, it's interminably sippable and smooth enough to be downed in a single, sweaty gulp. We can't get through summer (or spring, winter, or fall, for that matter) without it.

Goodflow Juice Co.
2601 E. Cesar Chavez

Best Taqueria Around Us

This funky Taqueria has everything a starving artist (or any starving person, for that matter) needs: great gobs of Mexican food for a few pennies and a smile. Their location one block south of Oltorf on South First has a hole-in-the-wall atmosphere complete with orange diner booths and exotic art, which rivals that of Star Seeds or any other local hipster dive, except here the service is friendlier and 90% of the folks around you won't be speaking English. There is a jukebox with all your Spanish favorites, and the location on Burnet even sells beer. Arandas specializes in Jalisco-style Mexican food, and their spicy, tangy tacos al pastor are the attraction to jones for - marinated pork, fresh cilantro, onions, lime juice and salsa wrapped in two corn tortillas for only $1.30. Plus, where else can you find a plate of cow brains for under six bucks?

Taqueria Arandas
Taqueria Arandas #5, 2448 S. First, 512/707-0887
Taqueria Arandas #2, 2038 W. Stassney, 512/448-4771

Best Truck Stop Coffeeshop

When you just want to gulp a cup of coffee and smoke a damn cigarette without a permit from the SOS, the FDA, or the TABC, Jim's is the place. Sure, Austin has lots of fine, independently owned, gourmet, hipster eateries, but it is sorely lacking in the all-night plain ol' cup o' joe department. Save for Jim's. Thank you, Jim's. Sweet Mike, that's good gravy!

Jim's Restaurant
9091 Research, 512/837-1119
7101 Hwy. 71 W., 512/288-2408
12832 Research, 512/250-9881

Best Two-for-one Business

We can't help but admire the chutzpah of a woman who will stock a line of locally-baked whole pies to attract shoppers to her South Austin antique shop. We've heard of all kinds of two-for-one deals but this is quite a concept. Our hats are off to clever entrepreneur Michelle Hart.

Best Wacky Restaurant Idea

Once again, Bick Brown enlisted the stunning design vision of Sarah Bishop (previous work includes Dolce Vita's cool interior) to present a unique and welcome dining experience to Austin. The menu features a variety of Asian dishes priced reasonably and spiced nicely. The decor is sleek, and the entire back wall is a square of TV screens featuring manga, Japanese animation.

Critics: Entertainment
Critics: Kids

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