Food
2003 Readers Poll
2003 Critics Picks
Best Grocery Store Alternative

"El Campo in Su Ciudad!" "Honk if You're Corny!" "Okra Alright!" "Nice Melons!" These are just a few of the catchy bumper stickers you might notice driving away from the recently founded Austin Farmers' Market Downtown. This event features farm-fresh and organic vegetables, all-natural meat, homemade salsas, local honey, fresh pastries, and even chef demonstrations. However, the fun doesn't stop with the food. Beautiful flowers, herbs, and other plants can also be found along with local artisans selling their wares. All the while, live music played by local musicians can be seen and heard as the shopping continues. A perfect way to start your Saturday!

SFC Farmers' Market
SFC Farmers' Market Downtown, Fourth & Guadalupe, 512/236-0074
SFC Farmers' Market at the Triangle, 4600 Guadalupe, 512/236-0074
SFC Farmers' Market at Sunset Valley, 3200 Jones, 512/236-0074
www.sfcfarmersmarket.org

Best Low-Carb-Friendly Store

Otherwise known as "Low-Carb Heaven" (at least to us), Great Health Nutrition Center is a paradise for those who can't seem to find unique low-carbohydrate products elsewhere in Austin. With everything from bagels to ice cream, this store gives back to those dieters who gave up the goodies for the sake of better health. With a knowledgeable staff and great hours, you can drop in for a pretzel and stay for the helpful hints and delicious samples. Did we mention the ice cream?

Great Health Nutrition Center
4815 W. Braker #530
512/345-7897

Best Place to Scope Sexy TAs

Have your eye on that musky young radical who's going to be grading your philosophy final next week? Perhaps you should look here first if you're hoping to butter him up. Better yet, you can look busy at your laptop, taking advantage of the free wireless access while messaging your roommate about the hottie with her head buried in The Society of the Spectacle. Study and cruise the hip, hot grad students. It's multitasking at its caffeinated (and smoky) finest.

Best Source for Penny-Wise Oenophiles
HEB

Economic conditions demand that the days of conspicuous consumption of pricey wines cease. This just isn't the time to quaff a $100 ... or for most of us, even a $30 wine on a Wednesday. Say hello to the wine department at the HEB at Hancock Center. Steve Williams, formerly of Central Market South, is in charge, and his serious appreciation of good wines at bargain prices has made this a goldmine of affordable finds. It's rare to spend over $9 on a bottle and quite common to spend less than $6. And these are wines you can be proud to serve on Saturdays as well as Wednesdays. The industry standard 10% case discount applies to a six pack of wine, upping the bargain ante further. Who knows? Come next boom, we might just skip the overpriced bottles altogether and stick with our new found frugality.

HEB
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
www.heb.com

Best Casual Italian Fare

Just a short walk from any of our newest skyscrapers, La Traviata is truly a diamond amid the downtown rough. And much like the opera from which it takes its name, this restaurant is a romance of Italian cuisine built upon beauty and tragedy. We recommend the subtle seduction of the toasted hazelnut and pecorino cheese in their Insalata Mista and the verbose declaration of love through tomato sauce and meat in their Chicken Parmesan. The tragedy comes once you realize this meal has ended.

La Traviata Italian Bistro
314 Congress
512/479-8131
www.latraviatatx.com

Most Fabulous Gourmet-to-Go

Breeze in for the to-go, or linger in the seating area – but do go to Portabla. Wonderful gourmet food for those too busy to make it themselves include baked goods from Sweetish Hill, moussaka, Italian subs, soups, salads, to-die-for roasted veggies (yes, more asparagus, please!), and daily entrées. The specialty pizzas are spectacular, as are the empanadas – and while the food is fabulous, Portabla also offers great service in an unpretentiously stylish atmosphere.

Best Non-Sushi at a Japanese Restaurant

Sushi has become almost as "Austin" as the breakfast taco, and we are blessed with so many tantalizing options. Enter Mikado. This new contender in the Austin Sushi Sweepstakes offers more than just raw-fish bliss. Mikado specializes in robata, or Japanese appetizers. The tangy enoki and char-grilled Mushroom Package, while served as tapas and intended to be shared, are tantalizing treats that may invoke greed even among the most charitable. Guests may choose items for the chefs to grill and opt to be served at the bar. For couples, however, we recommend the intimacy of the booths; the warm, streamlined "Japanese Modern" décor is a romantic dream.

Mikado Ryotei
9033 Research
512/833-8188
www.fb.com/mikadoaustin

Best Two-Dollar Hamburger

Ah, que rica! The lettuce and tomatoes are so crisp, the meat so tender and juicy you'd think it had been cooked on an open flame. This burger is fresh, superfly, and just the right size. We never regret aiming for the gringo lunch plate at La Cocinita, while listening to telenovelas on the TV in the corner. Cook/owner Janie Maldonado is a feature in her apron, greeting customers, taking orders, and delivering her ample dishes to the tables in this tiny eatery. She cooked at Cisco's Restaurant for 36 years before deciding to open her own place three years ago. When asked why she became an entrepreneur, she states simply, with a dimpled smile, "Porque yo se la comida que la gente se gustan" – I know what food the people like.

La Cocinita
4140 E. 12th
512/927-9066

John Anderson

John Anderson

Best Way to While Away Tuesday Evening

"Rule number one is Mick is always right. I'm Mick, and I'm always right." If you're one of the hundreds of trivia fanatics who cram into every nook and cranny of the popular West Sixth Street pub, that announcement is music to the ears. Seating is so precious that teams send scouts hours early to secure a table, and with prizes like a trip to Ireland last spring, why not? Attention, Mick: Richard Nixon's wife's first name was Thelma. She was known as "Pat," but her name was Thelma.

Best Chorizo Migas

Nothing makes weekend mornings better than a cup of coffee and a plate of these migas (with cheese, of course), the perfect amalgamation of egg, tortilla, cheese, jalapeno, and chorizo. To partake in such elemental culinary beauty is a "Eureka!" moment, to be sure. For so common a dish, with ingredients so simple, it is like the achingly obvious solution to what had seemed the impossible equation – the answer right under your nose. And this delicious cure will clear out your sinuses, too. While the Enchiladas y Mas family of friendly waitstaff will treat you with tender care, their spicy migas have a tendency to bite back.

Enchiladas y Mas
1911 W. Anderson
866/841-0948
www.enchiladasymas.com

John Anderson

Most Mouthwatering Tres Leches

Take a cruise down South Congress to a little tropical getaway of the Caribbean right here in Austin. Habana has a number of enticing options, such as tostones (fried plantains), their famous empanadas, and even yucca. If it's your sweet tooth you're looking to satisfy, try a piece of their Tres Leches. (Whole cakes are also available.) This extremely moist dessert is simply a white cake soaked in three different milk products (hence the name), then layered and topped with a very light and creamy whipped topping sprinkled with ground cinnamon. The effect is magical. One bite, and you'll be on a slow boat to the Morrow Castle.

Best New Custom Calzone

Create your own custom calzones for pickup or delivery! Start with the basic, 7-inch thin crust with ricotta and mozzarella cheese (starting at $3.95), and add your favorite ingredients – from traditional (mushrooms, olives, roasted garlic, sausage) to eclectic (fresh basil, portobello mushrooms, black beans, jalapeños, roasted chicken, shrimp, feta cheese) – for only 50 cents to $1 each. Calzones are served with a side of marinara sauce for dipping. They also have a variety of pizzas and salads available for more formidable appetites.

Best Vegetarian Spring Rolls

Hao Hao has some spring rolls with a zip … and how how. Each order offers two lusciously large rolls with a generous hunk of tofu, layers of crispy lettuce, and a hint of mint that kicks it up a notch. And, oooooh, when you add a little chili sauce to the peanut sauce … mmmmm! While the other Hao Hao restaurants offer plenty of other delightful menu treats, this particular version of egg roll is only available at the south location.

Hao Hao
1901 W. William Cannon #115
512/447-8121
www.haohaoaustin.com

Best Cup o' Joe on a Sunday Morning

Breakfast tacos and a cup of piping hot Oaxacan coffee on a Sunday Morning – ahhhhhh! "Morning" means before 10am, when a decidedly "old Austin" crowd ambles in. Rumor has it one customer sent back the Oaxacan elixir complaining it was too strong. There’s a Micky D’s up the street, bub.

Curra's Grill
614 E. Oltorf
512/444-0012
www.currasgrill.com

Best Bakery in an Unexpected Location

In all the hustle-bustle that is downtown Austin, sometimes it seems impossible to find a laid-back place to relax and have a bun – you know, a place where you won't run into everyone you know. Head north a bit, up I-35 to a little shop that offers just such a respite. Cinnamon's Bakery, located near the Lincoln Village, is a friendly, family-owned bakery that offers rest, relaxation, and a small taste of heaven. It's small, with only a few tables, a few newspapers ... and the rest is all pastries. The warm, friendly atmosphere is perfect for enjoying a fresh roll, twist, or mean sandwich.

Friendliest Service

Northwest Austinites are no strangers to the Taco Shack on Spicewood Springs Road. That's in large part due to the consistently warm and friendly neighborhood service employees at the Shack strive to give. They ask for a name with every order, and after a few return visits, customers are greeted like old friends. This, and their amazing salsa, accounts for their loyal repeat business from nearby high schoolers and professionals alike.

Taco Shack
3901-C Spicewood Springs Rd.
512/418-8900
www.tacoshack.com

Best Lunch-Time Mix

Boasting one of our town's most blended mixes of old and young, working and retired, blue-collar and white-, the Marimont is a laid-back Austin institution were you can go, have a quiet meal, and not run into everyone you know. "That's all well and good," you say. "But I am hungry; what about the food?" Well, we're happy to report that what keeps these divergent masses satisfied is something new restaurant owners dream of achieving: consistent quality and dependable reputation for really good food at a really good price.

Best Locals' Place

Abraham Kennedy, a Mexican immigrant, opened this South Congress eatery in the 1950s (a resolution from the Texas Legislature honoring Kennedy, drafted sometime in the Eighties and proudly posted in the restaurant, explains the history), and El Gallo just feels old-school, old Austin. Is it the pink-stucco exterior and the "Open Sunday" sign? The purple-and-chartreuse cushions on the iron furniture in the waiting areas? The tiled walls showing 50-plus years of love and wear? The dramatic murals in the windowless party room? Or the little, almost-secret bar area, tucked behind the cash register? Our kids like the paintings on the men's- and women's-room doors and the fish tank in the lobby. Yes, it's all that, plus one other thing: El Gallo attracts local, longtime customers (to its credit: it's not exactly a hipster haven). We'll have the Deluxe Dinner with queso instead of the tamale, please.

photo by John Anderson

Best Cheesecake Case

Chocolate or vanilla, key lime or raspberry swirl? Butterscotch, grasshopper, mocha, or turtle? Strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries on top, or some combination thereof? How about some crumbled candy bar with caramel drizzle instead? Mozart's not only has a great lake view, strong coffee, and wireless Internet access, but it also boasts one of the most spectacular cheesecake selections in the Western Hemisphere. They start with a creamy basic cheesecake, made by Kim of Georgetown's Fabulous Cheesecakes, and then crown it with their own magnificent in-house toppings. If you're on a diet, don't so much as glimpse into their glowing, glorious dessert case – yeah, the one you're flush up against as you wait in line – because resistance is futile. The fluffy slices yield enough lusciousness for two, but if you're in for a long night of solo studying or working, no one will fault you for not asking for a doggie bag.

Mozart's Coffee Roasters
3825 Lake Austin Blvd.
512/477-2900
mozartscoffee.com

Fabulous Cheesecakes
8863 Anderson Mill, #101
512/918-3663

Best Malts

Nothing complements a grease-gorged double cheeseburger like a cold, concentrated bomb of malted milk and sugar. Dirty Martin’s, which has been serving hungover college kids for decades, knows this through a diligent observation of the lethargic Americans' eating habits and has concocted the perfect malt. Don’t halfass it with milkshakes – after a night of hard drinking, the malt will be the perfect springboard into another productive night ... of hard drinking. Flavors at the classic burger joint just north of campus are kept classic in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

Dirty Martin's Place
2808 Guadalupe
512/477-3173
www.dirtymartins.com

Candice Gallion

Best Guiltless Guilty Pleasure

One of many treats found in the glass case at Kerbey Lane, the decadent Mocha Tofu Cheesecake is the only one made without refined sugar, and an excellent treat – minus the guilt. This is perfect for those birthdays and weekend rewards that won't set the belt back three notches afterward. What it lacks in sugar it makes up for in taste and originality. Whipped up by the chefs at Kerbey's own commissary and distributed to their three locations, this is one sweet Austin dish. We suggest taking a few slices home and enjoying them with coffee the next morning.

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
www.kerbeylanecafe.com

Best Plate o' Shrimp

The shrimp at Mr. Catfish are traditionally breaded, tempura-light, and grease-free, they taste like the ocean they came from, not like an oil spill. The side salad is garnished with a succulent, red, ripe tomato slice. Its cool crispness perfectly complements the shrimp. (Yes, it’s iceberg, but perfectly fresh.) Order the hushpuppies as your second side. You’ll hit all the food groups that way. You’ll also attain perfect shrimp nirvana. G’head, reward yourself.

1075 Springdale, 927-6666; 850 E. Rundberg, 997-7878 www.mrcatfish.com

Best Salsa Like No Other

At first, we marveled at its blackness, afraid it would singe the tongue off with some hidden spice. Once tasted, the unique flavor of this rich, complex, and rather mild salsa seems perfect on everything one could put salsa on.

Polvos
2004 S. First, 512/441-5446
Polvos La Brissa, 14735 Bratton Ln., 512/251-5596
360 Nueces #10, 512/494-4064
www.polvosaustin.com/polvos-south

Best Southern Cooking

"We put the big chef on the outside of the restaurant to convey the homey, relaxing attitude of Southern comfort," says owner Tony Herring of his fledgling restaurant's quirky mural. "But we took away the mustache, because we thought it made him look too Italian." Regardless, the authenticity of Tony's Southern Comfort Restaurant is as perfectly fried as their hushpuppies. Everything here is homemade with care, from the pork chops to the peach cobbler. Try the fillet of catfish, which will literally melt in your mouth or the vegetable plate for those of you in a lighter, noncanola-oiled mood.

John Anderson

Best Rockin' Time in Spicewood

The beige building on the north side of Highway 71 in Spicewood may look like an unassuming little joint, but don't be fooled; Poodie's is one of the most rockin' bars in the Hill Country. Named for its owner, Willie Nelson's longtime sideman Poodie Locke, it's a classic workingman's bar with beer (the word "cold" has been spray-painted from the sign out front) and damn good cheeseburgers by day and bands like the Cosmic Dust Devils and guests like Billy Bob Thornton at night. And you never know when Willie will drop in.

Best Little Taqueria/Store

The pull of this place is not the odd assortment of goods for sale on sparsely stocked shelves (candles, brown-sugar cones, incense, sardines, pancake mix, peacock feathers) but the delicious, spicy tacos and the home-cooked goodness of watching your food prepared in sight. A family operation turned over by the dueña to her daughters, this cocina on Tillery has air conditioning, six tables covered in blue-checkered table cloths, candles burning to La Virgen, and some of the tastiest, drippiest tacos this side of I-35.

Best Reason to Go Veg

Intimidated by tofu? Squicked out by TVP? Bored with broccoli? Try the Lucky 7, described by veggie mavens as "seven little balls all made of delicious," and capable of recruiting even the most hardened carnivore to the lighter side of dining. Long beloved by campus-area veg-heads, Veggie Heaven offers a plethora of healthy-eating choices that may have you giving up the fleshier foods for good.

Best Tacos Before a "Day Trip"

Say you spontaneously decide to drive out to Johnson City. Reaching the outskirts of town, you suddenly snap out of your adrenal "Day Trip" and realize that your ravenous hunger is so overpowering that you may not have enough energy to steer around the sloping curves of Highway 71. Not to fear, Rosie’s Tamale House is here ... or rather, there, at the joint of highways 71 and 620, serving an array of surprisingly excellent highway tacos and chalupas to spice up any weary road-tripper. If you're searching for even more substantial Rosie’s goodness, they’ll point you down the road to their full-scale restaurant on the opposite side of the highway. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little shameless self-promotion.

Rosie's Tamale House
13436 Hwy. 71 W., 512/263-5245

photo by John Anderson

Best Portal to Good Ol' Austin

Celebrating 50 years, Matt’s El Rancho is truly an Austin institution. A favorite of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, El Rancho is famous with tourists and locals alike, not to mention the most popular place for students to take their parents. El Rancho helped define Tex-Mex in Austin and is still run by the Martinez family. The tacos and enchiladas are aromatic and delicious, and the margaritas are sublime. With an expansive interior, as well as a gorgeous patio for outdoor dining, El Rancho continues to be among the "Best of Austin."

Matt's El Rancho
2613 S. Lamar
512/462-9333
www.mattselrancho.com

 
Critics: Entertainment
Critics: Kids

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle