Just like the folks who actually live in the Northwest Hills neighborhood where Cafe Mia is located, we find ourselves dropping in here every week to load up on chef/owner Adrian Creasey's hearty and affordable food. The caper-laden fresh tomato bruschetta and hefty lamb gyro on grilled focaccia are among our favorites, with great value for the money. Fork-tender Tuscan pot roast and thick slabs of meat loaf marinara with roasted rosemary potatoes never fail to satisfy, and the price is always right.
We know waiting on tables anywhere can be a pain in the neck. But imagine serving all those bozos while they're trying to watch a film - now that's an all-over body ache. Although owners Tim and Karrie League can claim bragging rights for the five-year-old movie house's wink-wink programming and quick rise as a must-see city attraction, the unsung heroes of the Alamo Drafthouse are its 20 waiters and waitresses. They are the ones hunched over, maneuvering discreetly, and staying friendly - hoofing it back and forth so that you can get your drink on. You may not notice them (that's the point!), but they perform a noble service: They put the draft in the 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
As more and more restaurants subscribe to satellite music formats no different from what you hear on the radio, one begins to long for the days of bona fide "elevator music." HomeTown Buffet is one of the few eateries that still pipes in bastardized instrumental remakes of hit tunes where jaw-dropping vapidity promotes a sense of misplaced nostalgia instead of knee-jerk disgust. You won't believe what they've done to "Sweet Home Alabama."
Flaky on the outside and buttery on the inside, Sweetish Hill plain croissants taste about as close to the way the French intended as they get in Austin. They're not chewy, they're not greasy; they're rich and flavorful, perfect for dunking in hot coffee. "A good croissant has a lot to do with the kind of butter you use, the temperature of the dough, and the technique," says Sweetish Hill owner Jim Murphy. He should know. He has been making croissants at Sweetish Hill for over 12 years. You've got to get there early, though, because they only make a limited amount each day. And don't save them for later; like any good croissant, these are meant to be eaten toute de suite.
Oh, we love the words "del mar." And at Changos, the Taco del Mar is truly a taste of the sea. They take Mahi Mahi and marinate it in citrus juices, then grill or fry it (your choice) and throw in pico de gallo or baja cabbage salsa. We might be hundred of miles from the ocean, but after one bite of Changos' fish taco, we can feel the sand underneath our toes.
This eclectic crew of helpful, knowledgeable fish hawkers serves up some great slabs of fish and terrific raw oysters. The kitchen knows what it's doing as well, proffering mouth-wateringly good po-boys and the tastiest hushpuppies in town.
Forget the gym - work up a sweat in a much more seductive style at Azucar. Sunday evenings start with a complimentary fajita buffet and progress into free salsa lessons, drink specials, and all the right music to get us moving on the dance floor. Who could go back to the treadmill after this?
Gaby & Mo's Blue Plate Specials are a tease. Each week they print a list of their scrumptious lunch specials, and we find ourselves torn: Should we wait until Thursday for the zesty Chicken Korma or go ahead and feast on today's Meatloaf & Garlic Mashed? Well, whenever the Risotto Fritters are on tap, our week's a cinch. We can't resist the call of the delicate mounds of risotto cooked to the perfect texture and consistency, gently dusted with a cornmeal concoction, and lightly pan-fried. Oh, and the glorious symphony for the taste buds does not end there. The fritters are draped in an impeccable, tangy marinara, covered with just enough mozzarella, and baked. Oh. My. God. Cap it off with whatever the bread of the day is, a salad spritzed with one of G&M's own amazing dressings, and a glass of red wine and you are on the Appian Way, my friend.
What better place to get a ham sandwich than a ham store? Hickory Honey Hams makes its sandwiches on fresh-baked bread with generous helpings of succulent honey-baked ham toppings galore. Tuesday's special is a ham sandwich along with your choice of a side order (try the ham-laden baked beans) and drink for $5.99. If you don't care for ham, try the equally delicious turkey or oven-roasted beef sandwiches.
This place is straight out of a 19th-century novel, parading peacocks included. Imagine an authentic 1890s Victorian mansion on seven acres in the heart of South Austin minutes from downtown. No way, you say. Blink your eyes and be transported. An Austin tradition since 1945, Green Pastures is a jewel, an elegant dining establishment set amidst venerable live oaks, serving fine food and hospitality handcrafted from another era. Not cheap, but a real treat.
Those in on the doughnut in-on-in have always known about the drive-through at Mrs. J's. While late night bakers toiled away, afterhours club revelers could sometimes coax them to the window to purchase hot pillows of glazed luv. Oh, and at 4am those fluffy sugared pillows are hot! This year, the bakery defined its hours to suit the late-night as well as the early-morning doughnut crowd. But if you get a hankering when the afternoon sun is high, you'll have to hanker till way after the sun goes down!
Next time you need a quick post-clubbing fix for that sweet tooth, head south to La Mexicana. This brightly lit spot on South First opens in the wee hours - 4am everyday. Literally bursting with cookies - Mexican wedding cookies, and green cookies and red cookies, and yummy Mexican sweet breads and flaky pastries - La Mex piles the sweets high to whet your every appetite. (And did we mention the breakfast tacos? That's another story.) Don't expect to see them between 8pm and 4am, though; that's when the bakers relax.
This place kicks the fast-food chains' collective ass with their great burgers and especially their cheap, delicious malts. Sandy's drive-through is the ideal destination after a long swim at Barton Springs Pool. In combo, Sandy's and the pool are a foolproof treatment for the summer heat.
603 Barton Springs Rd.
Gotta give it to Jo's for perfectly epitomizing the SoCo zeitgeist. Cold beer and hot coffee? Why not? These subculture mavens got their chops down, and their beer license makes sitting outdoors on a hot day checking out the Vespa club and the scenesters that much more appealing.
Perhaps the grooviest of all the retro-chic events happening here at this hot spot on the so cool SoCo strip is its weekly Steak Night. Chef Louis Lambert fires up the grill and has his great Liberty Catering staff serve steaks to the laid-back neighborhood crowd lounging around the comfortable San Jose courtyard. A soft breeze carries the aroma of steaks on the grill, folks chat amiably over ice-cold beer, and some kid does a cannonball in the swimming pool. It's a Fifties neighborhood block party every Tuesday night.
In much of the Orient, restaurants keep their fish alive in tanks, awaiting a hungry diner's selection. Restaurants in the States rarely go to the trouble to keep live fish. T&S does, assuring the freshest possible taste. Perhaps the best recommendation for T&S is that some of Austin's finest chefs go there on their nights off. Do not miss the Salt & Pepper Shrimp, maybe Austin's best single seafood dish.
T&S Chinese Restaurant
10014 N. Lamar
We go to Castle Hill when we want to fall in love. The lighting is dim, the dishes divine, and the menu lends itself to hours of discussion. Castle Hill is the spot to have a long talk about an old novel. It's perfect for gazing at the new love of your life across your Spicy Szechuan Hacked Chicken Salad. Go ahead, plant your first kiss. Just do it before your Grilled Lamb Loin with Creamy Garlic Sauce arrives.
Don't get us wrong. The food at Maudie's is great. But if you ask us why it's standing-room-only at lunch every day, we have a simple answer: the staff. We never get tired of watching the way they care for the customers and for each other. No matter how harried, how crazy, how rushed it gets, Kimberly, Tatum, Karina, Alberto, Maria, and Rob always have time for a smile and a kind word. Even better, they operate like a finely honed team, each supporting the other in getting the job done.
1212 S. Lamar, 512/440-8088
Maudie's Hacienda, 9911 Brodie, 512/280-8700
10205 N. Lamar, 512/832-0900
Maudie's Milagro, 3801 Capital of TX Hwy. N., 512/306-8080
2608 W. Seventh, 512/473-3740
Maudie's Hill Country, 12506 Shops Pkwy., 512/263-1116
High Time Tea Bar & Brain Gym closed, but the building owner (Leslie Moore of Word of Mouth Catering) cared enough about maintaining the eclectic charm of the neighborhood that she leased to Leslie Martin and Lisa Goodell, two local waitstaff goddesses who caffeinate and cook with aplomb. It is an all-veggie menu with yummies like their Soul Food Plate and Cosmic Sloppy Joes. Hats off for keeping the faith.
The food may be fast, but don't mistake Banzai for the average greasy-spoon dive. One of the jewels of the Drag, Banzai offers authentic, homemade sushi, tempura, and other Japanese favorites - all at warp speed. Aided by a friendly staff that knows their customers, Banzai is the ideal site for quality food (their miso soup is Austin's best) without sacrificing quality time.
We did, and we felt fabulous. The art on the walls is electric, the rum drinks are potent, and it was all we could do to keep ourselves from putting down our fork of jerk chicken and shimmying around the room. Despite its welcoming, casual atmosphere, the Calabash is just that type of place: When we revel in their fine Caribbean cuisine and move our groove to the sounds of the islands, it makes us want to dress up - fancy. Sequins are welcome both indoors and on the breezy outdoor patio.
Jean-Luc Salles is a champion of the obscure cut of meat known as the Hanger Steak. The meat itself is as tender as a filet mignon, but as flavorful as a ribeye. He beds this beautiful cut of meat in a sauce made of roasted shallots and veal stock reduced until it is the consistency of syrup. Paired with his peerless pommes frites and a bottle of Coudoulet du Beaucastel Côtes du Rhone, nirvana is in sight.
A good shell is the key to any good taco, and you won't get a better shell than the thick, homemade corn tortillas that hold Village Tacos together at Amaya's. The enormous amount of shredded cheese topping is another plus. A very filling plate of three (beef, chicken, or mixed) can be had for a mere $6.
You may want coffee with your cactus taco and you may want lemonade, but as soon as you're served the specialty at this South Austin eatery, you'll forget all about your beverage. Cactus ("nopalito" in Spanish) tastes tangy and sharp, a perfect complement to eggs. We tried to get the secret recipe and failed. Now we have to drive all the way down south every damn morning.
East Side Baptist'll have you down on your knees singing "Thank God It's Friday!" the first time you set tastebuds on their mouth-watering catfish lunch special. Each Friday, the University Hills area church serves up the best catfish fillets we've had this side of Okeechobee, Florida, delicately dusted with cornmeal and fried to golden brown, heaping helpings of cole slaw and ultra-yummy roasted potatoes, plus a slab of some fine lemon bundt cake. Oh, it is salvation (with salivation!) to go! The cost is a $5.50-per-plate donation to the church's Operation Push-Pull service organization, and they serve takeout only, every Friday, 11am-2pm. Call ahead with orders of five or more (great idea for those office lunch doldrums). And if you can't get out of your office, for an additional 50 cents a plate, they make deliveries. Amen to that!
East Side Baptist Church
2400 Northeast Dr.
Austin has a strong and well-established Southern food tradition that dates back more than half a century to legendary eateries such as Green Pastures (elegant plantation style), the Southern Dinette (small family joints), Threadgill's (down-home cooking meets the music scene), and Dot's Place (affordable cafeteria style). Homegrown chef Hoover Alexander embraces Austin's Southern food tradition at Hoover's Cooking with a menu featuring personal renditions of treasured family recipes and friendly service that makes everyone feel right at home. The heritage we're famous for is very safe here.
Line up at lunchtime and fill your tray for cheap with a couple of side dishes and whatever wonderful veggie entrees are being offered that day. Top it all off with a big glass of icy horchata, and you're all set to stargaze at the cute rock stars in your midst.
Specializing in some of Austin's best "Hot!" Elgin Sausage (among other open-pit delights) for about 15 years, this hot pink Eastside landmark at the corner of Harvey & MLK is a gathering place for lunch loungers and supper savorers alike. It might not occur to most barbecue-nuts to indulge in a fresh dessert at a casual to-go joint like this. May we suggest the lemon cake? Simple, unadorned, pre-sliced and arranged in neat little baggies right next to the take-out window, its tangy, melt-in-your-mouth goodness has become one of our favorites. Go ahead. Try it. We bet you'll like it, too.
Sometimes love is found in the most unexpected places. For example, it seems that many folks don't realize that this kitschy East Austin eatery - known for the past four decades as a great place to get chicken mole enchiladas, big, beefy chile rellenos, and even bigger, beefier Aztec-themed calendars - would also be an ideal spot for everything from mile-high vegetarian tostadas to spicy, fresh-tasting spinach and mushroom enchiladas? Totally authentic, totally fresh, and totally affordable, El Azteca has something for strict herbivores, carnivores, and everything in between.
The solid red color scheme all over the walls of this new kid on the Loop is only broken by the monotoned mural portraits of famous rock icons like Roky Erickson and Nick Cave and the pool table up front. And don't get us started on the jukebox: old standards from Johnny Cash and the Everlys; classic Seventies like Styx and Foreigner, forgodsakes, and the baddest-ass punk rock compilations from the Eighties. This place rocks. The pizza is great: thin, floury, crispy crust, lip-smackin' marinara and mozzarella, and ultra-fresh toppings. Plus, the beer is cheap (check out the $1 Lone Star pint happy hours, nightly 4-8pm and all day Sunday). Now if there were just some place to put the stage - Can you say "Zeppoli's?"
Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin. Support the Chronicle