You don't have to drive to La Grange or West for an authentic kolache. Instead, take a short jaunt to the Kolache Shoppe in Taylor. The purple house in a residential neighborhood has been open for more than 90 years. Irene Bucanek bought the joint 20-plus years ago after working there for two more decades. Kolaches are prepared in a huge, century-old Master-Baker oven using Bucanek's Czech grandmother's recipes. The resulting kolaches are sweet and slightly buttery and topped with cherry, cottage cheese, or peach, or filled with poppy seeds. And if those hunks of sweet yum are not enough, Bucanek loves the King and has filled the place with hunks of Elvis memorabilia love.
Kolache Shoppe, 919 W. Fourth, Taylor, 512/352-5364
Perla's Big Blue Banana & Bacon (served for Saturday and Sunday brunch) is a pancake so big that Perla supposedly will give you an award if you actually finish it. Waiters say they've never seen anyone do it. While it digs into your wallet at 20 bucks a pop, it is, hands down, the best pancake in town. The buttermilk mixture is a secret. It's not too sweet and has real chunks of fresh bananas in it, topped with warmed wild blueberries, whipped cream, crème fraîche, and maple syrup. It also comes with a hefty side of house bacon.
Veg-centric folks can be foodies, too, and even though Dai Due is a butcher shop as well as a restaurant, it doesn’t turn a cold shoulder to meat abstainers – especially from 10am to 3pm. The hearty Dai Due Breakfast layers brown rice, kimchi, a fried egg, and greens to form a satisfying meal that far exceeds other restaurants’ perfunctory meat-free offerings. No matter how you identify when it comes to food habits, you won’t be sorry to see this go-to dish appear before you first thing in the morning.
Nestled in Chinatown Center in North Austin, Baguette House is the holy amalgamation of cheap, fresh, and delicious. What really shines here is their bánh mì, made with bread that's baked fresh daily. With many sandwiches priced at under five bucks, Baguette House is the perfect place for the thrifty and hungry. And lest you miss out on the "French" portion of this French-Vietnamese restaurant, be sure to nab a fresh pastry on your way out the door.
Some folks have a salt tooth instead of a sweet tooth – they don't really do dessert. To end a meal, instead of a slice of pie, they might choose a wedge of aged cheddar. But every now and then, the last course arrives at the table for sharing family-style, and the server has brought a spoon for everyone, including the diner who eschews sugar. To be polite, they try a small bite. Then another. And another. Licha's Cantina's take on tres leches cake – denser than the traditional style and bathing in a pool of sweet cream – is decadent. And just savory enough to convert even the staunchest sweet-treat skeptic.
Weekends tend to start on Thursday nights around this town, and come Friday, we need fuel to keep us going. Soak up the fun from the night before with the mouthwatering pork chop lunch special at Perry’s Steakhouse. The huge hand-selected, roasted, slow-smoked, caramelized prime cut is a recipe three decades old. Your slab features eyelash, loin, and ribs, and it is served with whipped potatoes and homemade applesauce. Save your leftovers for good eatin’ and refueling through the rest of your party-party weekend.
It's the day after that crazy party and you need … help. Where can you run that's fast, fresh, delicious, and open early for business? How about starting off with that Cherrywood Plate ready to order at your neighborhood El Chilito, where you are greeted wholeheartedly by a friendly face at the window, in which they kindly ask your name. Don't forget to order that Ojo Rojo – you're going to need it; you're going to love it. El Chilito, FTC (for the cure).
Gail and Fred Warren of Southern Hospitality, a restaurant that serves up the most straight-forwardly delicious and affordable home cooking made from scratch, is the pair that does not stop. Gail greets you at the door, gets you a drink, seats you, and tells you what’s on the menu. She checks up on you consistently, all while running the front of the house almost entirely by herself. It seems that Fred’s domain is in the kitchen, and he can be found restocking the buffet with delicious black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, catfish, etc. It’s obvious that Gail and Fred Warren have got a lot on their plate, but that doesn’t stop them from putting hot, delicious food on ours. Always with smiles on their faces, the Warrens leave you feeling full, happy, and a part of the family. What a duo!
Gail & Fred Warren, Southern Hospitality Catering & Dining, 6700 Middle Fiskville #405, www.sohosfoods.us
Behind the counter at Ken's lies a sprawling array of sugary sweets, but our favorite treats at this family-owned doughnut shop are the spicy vegetarian samosas in the small display case next to the register. Flaky fried pastry envelops perfectly spiced curried potatoes and peas – don't forget the mint chutney. Open 24 hours, seven days a week, Ken's has crafted a winning combo of sweet and savory to satisfy morning, afternoon, and late-night cravings alike.
The Omelettry has long added to Austin's celebrated diner-culture, with standards Kerbey Lane and Magnolia. Unlike the others' expansion to locations all over the city, the Omelettry stayed put in its small shack off Burnet. But this year, the owners picked up and moved to a bright and shiny new spot off Airport. The Seussian murals reflect the whimsy the owners have always brought, and the restaurant seems set to fill Austin tummies for decades yet.
Cynthia and Lidia (Libby) Pérez, sister-proprietresses of three-decade community hub and art gallery La Peña and the late, lamented Las Manitas Cafe, sell tacos. La Peña sells tacos. We did not know this. Las Manitas, a shotgun shack of a cafe, where you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the restrooms, where Austin's high- and lowbrows congregated over steaming plates of Migas Especial con Hongos, was very special. It closed in 2008 due to Austin's ongoing one-sided love affair with developers. (Has anyone pulled Austin aside and told her: "Hey, honey: They just aren't that into you …"?) Matters not. The Pérez sisters sell tacos! For $1.40! That buck and change is a very real symbol of the sisters' fierce insistence that food = community and that as a community, we don't have to lose everything we love.
La Peña, 227 Congress #300, 512/236-0610
With over 30 different flavors of popcorn to taste for free, all we can say is that happy vibes permeate from this clean, spacious room. The friendly staff member here greets each patron with, "Feel free to sample as much as you like!" We sure will. No judging glares from the staff as they stay behind the small counter while we fill our little cups with the seasoned, candied, and chocolate-flavored popcorn. The pops of color from their merchandise coupled with stools and a water station makes this a popping paradise!
Roaring Fork chef Adrian Giovanelli is upholding the world-famous Texas-sized tradition of the Big Ass Burger. Not only is it fun to say "Big Ass Burger," it is served with delicious kettle french fries. The one-pound patty is stacked with poblano peppers, cheddar, smoked pepper bacon, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and pickles. The fact that you can make a reservation to eat one makes it all the more appealing. The Big Ass Burger is served at both the Downtown and Stonelake locations, and is on the happy hour menu for the budget-conscious.
Skull & Cakebones started out practically on a whim a few years back, when Sascha Biesi and her partner, Yauss Berenji, decided to go pro with Biesi's vegan cupcake skills. First, they pitched Whole Foods. Then came Wheatsville, Royal Blue, Violet Crown Cinema, and most recently, Central Market. You can't swing a blood glucose meter in this town without hitting one of these cruelty-free treats. The secret to their success, apart from consistently delicious desserts? A growing stable of partnerships with other locally grown purveyors, from Cuvée Coffee to Buddha's Brew Kombucha to Treaty Oak Distilling and beyond.
Unassumingly perched amongst the studios of Canopy, this peaceful little coffee shop offers a charming, unique menu of Japanese-fusion dishes. Light entrées and sides like the Nori Tama toast, kale salad, and the curry rice plates (you can choose chicken katsu or grilled vegetables) reveal deep flavors and tidy elegance. The ambience is playful but serene (check out the squirrel-patterned wallpaper and pile of board games in the corner), the staff is friendly, and the Casa Brasil coffee is spot-on. Stylish, warm, and comfortable, Sa-Tén’s creative spirit brings an extra lift to this artsy corner of Austin.
Smiles come easy at Mary's, opened this year by Philly transplant Ken Gambone. The unique menu – Liège waffles embedded with tiny caramelized chunks of sugar, fried-egg sandwiches, grilled paninis, and of course, the "pop" in the pop shop, handmade gelato ’sicles – can turn any frown upside down. Gambone's dedication to sourcing local with Third Coast coffee and Texas French Bread certainly earns grins. But the biggest smiles of all are reserved for Mary, Gambone's mom for whom the shop is named, and the entire wall of famous women who share the moniker: Mary J. Blige, Mary Kay Place, Mary Hart, Peter, Paul & Mary, Mary Steenburgen, Run-DMC's "Mary, Mary," la Virgen, and of course, Mary Tyler Moore.
The musical chairs shuffle of this cherished Austin chain – the home of Hilbert Maldonado's famous burgers since 1973 – has left some of us hangry. How could they get us so hooked on their fries, onion rings, and tangy, perfectly dressed Dallas Wings (their name for what yankees call Buffalo wings), then up and close their Capital Plaza location for renovations – that took years? You can't imagine the bright-orange tears of hot, spicy joy that streamed down our cheeks when we saw them near completion of the project. The sad news was that their 35th Street and Burnet Road locations would close forever. The great news, on the other hand, was that the Capitol Plaza location is now open. Welcome back, Hill-Bert's. Get in our belly, Dallas Wings. We have no doubt it will have been worth the wait.
There are those who say, "The Armadillo is the most missed business in Austin!" and they were right on the money … two decades ago, as Austin changed from sleepy town to city. However, as each year passes, another landmark closes, marking our reluctant shift from city to metropolis. One heartbreaking loss this year was Players, a place emblematic of the grimy, aw-shucks Texan charm – burgers, fries, shakes, drive-through, open super-late – that once could be found all over Austin (and around UT). Nowadays, you really have to look for that charm. It wasn't a pretty building, but it was an institution. Guess what? While the ambience isn't campus-dive, Players is still in business, and their beloved burger-and-fries combos can be found at three of the five Austin Public Links golf courses around the city. You don't even have to tee off to grab a bite at one of these snack bars.