La Vista at the Hyatt

208 Barton Springs Rd, 480-2034
Mon-Thu, 6:30-11pm;
Fri-Sun, 6:30pm-midnight

Because La Vista is on the second floor of the Hyatt Hotel, chances are you've already been there, or somewhere eerily similar, even before your first visit. A meal in a fern-filled restaurant with a hotel spreading up and around you is a familiar enough sight, but the view of the hotel is not the vista they mean. Rather, the self-proclaimed "Fajita Capital of Texas" sits squarely between the Congress Avenue and First Street bridges and overlooks Town Lake. The Fajitas for Two at $17.50 seem pricey but probably aren't, considering that it's actually more like fajitas for 12 -- a mountain (one pound apiece) of meat with Spanish rice, refried pintos, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. And to top it all off? Pace brand picante sauce. Other menu options include hearty steak, brisket, and catfish sandwiches, char-grilled steaks, and slow-roasted chicken. -- M.P.

Hula Hut

3826 Lake Austin Blvd, 476-4852
Sun-Thu, 11am-10:30pm;
Fri & Sat, 11am-11:30pm

Oyster Landing, the area of town on the water where Lake Austin Boulevard meets Enfield, has become an institution, serving as Austin's own mini-version of Faneuil Hall or the Wharf in San Francisco. Teeming with crowds on a recent Sunday at sundown (the best time of the day to luxuriate on the west-facing decks of the Hula Hut), there was still a nice space at one of the outside bars to drink margaritas while we waited for a table under the palapa that extends out into the lake. I've always been skeptical of Hula Hut's Polynesian-inspired Tex-Mex -- worried perhaps that everything might be garnished with pineapple rings -- but it turns out that the drinks and the view aren't the only thing worth visiting for. The food was a great surprise, different enough from the regular Chuy's fare to keep us intrigued, but not over-the-top with regard to island fusion. We started out with the Shrimp Flautas ($7.95), an entire shrimp won ton wrapped and stuffed with bacon, jalapeños, and cheese, then moved on to some pretty impressive Salmon Tacos ($7.50) -- those famous Chuy's homemade tortillas filled with two light and flaky chile-rubbed fillets, topped with jalapeño-lime sauce and garnished with red cabbage and cilantro -- and the biggest burrito I've ever seen in my life, the Grilled Shrimp and Spinach Tubular Taco ($8.95) they call it, stuffed with shrimp, spinach, cheese, and verde sauce. The fans kept us cool until the sun went down, and then we sidled up to the bar next to Troy Aikman and Daryl Johnston, et al., who, until they were noticed, were also enjoying a pleasant evening on the lake. - J.S.

The Lodge at Lakeview

3826-B Lake Austin Blvd
(Oyster Landing), 476-7372

Mon-Thu, 11am-10:30pm; Fri & Sat, 11am-11pm; Sun, 10:30am-10:30pm

This rustic lakeside lodge complete with vaulted ceilings supported by log beams and large stone fireplaces sits on the former site of the BoatTown marina. It's a favorite West Austin watering hole. Patrons are known to drop in after 18 holes at the municipal golf course across the street or approach from the boat landing. The decks are an irresistible place to indulge in a tall, cool drink and watch the twinkling lights reflect on the waters of Lake Austin just above Tom Miller Dam. A reliable treat while you're contemplating the menu is the house specialty, Ranch Chips ($2.50), genuine homemade potato chips with a creamy bowl of ranch dressing for dunking. The burgers here are popular, including a mighty, lean Buffalo Burger ($9) with your choice of trimmings. The substantial salads are big enough to satisfy any appetite. Give the Blackened Chicken Spinach Salad ($8.50) a try; a large bowl piled high with fresh spinach is topped with croutons, sliced mushrooms, red onions, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, and slices of spicy chicken and served with a choice of dressings on the side. It could be a two-meal deal. -- V.B.W.


3826 Lake Austin Blvd, 477-2900
Mon-Thu, 7am-11pm; Fri, 7am-1am;
Sat, 8am-1am; Sun, 8am-11pm.

Two doors down from Hula Hut you'll find Mozart's Coffee Roasters, an upscale cafe with ample lakeside seating (both inside and out) and the same soul-soothing view of the water. The coffee is decent ($1.95 for a serve-yourself bottomless cup) and on the day we visited there were seven choices, including two decaf options and a few flavored varieties. Fare is mostly limited to desserts and ice creams, though they do serve bagels with cream cheese, croissants, and the like. The Chocolate Sorbetto ($2.75) was rich and smooth, but the Cherry Cheesecake ($3.95) -- which looked like a dream behind the glass case -- lacked creaminess and depth. Mozart's also offers a selection of teas and the usual coffeehouse suspects -- espresso, cappuccino, lattes -- with the addition of both coffee/mocha and fruit granitas. The cafe's location on the shore does manage to downplay its decidedly West Austin tone (prices not included); it's a nice place to sit and sip, especially on the more private lower decks, if the mosquitoes aren't too bad. -- J.S.

County Line on the Lake

5204 FM 2222, 346-3664
Mon-Fri, 11:30am-2:30pm (lunch);
Sun-Thu, 5-9pm; Fri & Sat, 5-10pm

Not too many years ago, this creekside outlet of the successful homegrown barbecue chain sat alone in a rural West Travis county locale on a lot once occupied by a rustic country roadhouse. Now, the Northwest Austin neighborhood has grown to within a few blocks and the roadhouse atmosphere is stylish but casual. This County Line outlet does a brisk lunchtime trade with business types as well as fun seekers on their way to enjoy the lakes. The sandwiches are hefty and satisfying. We're very partial to the house specialty, Smoked Prime Rib Sandwich ($8.25), a moist, delicious monster on a sesame roll with a side of their signature creamy coleslaw, chunky potato salad, or peppery pinto beans. The County Line is justifiably famous for its gargantuan beef ribs and we do love them, but the pork ribs are mighty fine, too. Sample the Pork Combo ($12.50) for dinner some evening and you'll receive lean, butter-tender slices of beef brisket, smoky sausage slices, and a small rack of finger-lickin' good ribs plus slaw, potato salad, beans, and all the sauce you want. Both the bread and the ice cream are homemade here and the portions are generous. -- V.B.W.

Gator's on Bull Creek

6203 Capitol of Texas Hwy, 345-9881
Mon-Thu, 11am-9pm;
Fri & Sat, 11am-9:30pm

Years ago, a bored Daily Texan cartoonist told a wild tale about liberating some baby alligators in the lake, but, as far as I know, Gator's restaurant is the closest anyone is likely to come to an alligator in Central Texas. Gator's is a congenial and informal family restaurant shaded by a giant live oak on the banks of Bull Creek off Lake Austin. In addition to making everyone feel right at home, they also happen to serve some of the best hand-breaded fried seafood you're likely to find in these parts. Whet the appetite with a Basket of Crawfish Tails ($5.99) and keep a drink handy. The tender little morsels are dusted with cornmeal laced with cayenne. If fried foods don't tempt you, the kitchen will prepare any seafood dinner Cajun-grilled, lemon-pepper grilled, or blackened. The lemon-grilled Fish & Shrimp Combo ($10.49) is a delicate, subtle treat, with both the medium shrimp and sweet catfish fillets cooked to perfection. The coleslaw could use less mayo and more spices and the beans are a trifle bland, but these are minor quibbles when the majority of the food is simply wonderful. -- V.B.W.

Ski Shores

Lake Austin, 346-5915
Tue-Sat, 11am-10pm; Sun, 11am-9pm

If you approach this lakeside fixture by car, you'll do a good deal of downhill driving through rural subdivisions and lots of brown grassland, and just when you think you've made a wrong turn about five miles back.... BOOM.. there's the lake. Situated on Lake Austin and operating since 1954, Ski Shores looks like a classic wharfside diner from the Flipper era. A simple snack bar menu (burgers, battered fries, delicate fried catfish) and selection of bottled beers suit the location perfectly. Why complicate things when you can just kick back and watch the boats go by? -- P.J.

The Pier on Lake Austin

1703 River Hills Rd, 327-4562
Sun-Thu, 10am-11pm; Fri & Sat, 10am-1am

Boaters on the stretch of the Colorado River known as Lake Austin have been coming to The Pier for 60 years. It's an informal, ramshackle kind of joint where you can approach by car or boat. There's even a gas pump out by the boat slips so you can gas up after you've had a chance to eat a bite and wet your whistle. The night we visited, a group of youngsters shot pool and played video games while a contingent of state office workers drank beer and celebrated someone's milestone birthday. The outdoor bar has two frozen margarita machines and there's plenty of cold beer. The fare here is burgers, fries, onion rings, nachos, po-boys, seafood, and chicken baskets. For nostalgia's sake, try the Nachos ($3.75), the closest I've seen to the old Armadillo WHQ nachos -- a big plate of flat chips topped with microwaved cheddar and jalapeño slices. The Cajun Catfish Po-Boy ($5.95) is perfectly respectable with a small, well-seasoned fillet of fish dressed with chopped lettuce, onions, pickles, and sliced tomatoes on a soft sesame seed bun, though it could have used mayo or some kind of condiment. The Cheeseburger in Paradise ($3.10) is a 1/3lb patty with a great char-broiled taste -- really first rate -- and the Onion Rings ($1.95) are so big that they reminded me of the inner tubes we used to take to the lake for floats. -- V.B.W.

The Sundowner Grill

16107 FM 2769 (Volente), 258-9993
Sun-Thu, noon-9pm; Fri & Sat, noon-11pm

The Sundowner Grill
photograph by Minh

The snack shack at this growing Lake Austin marina/beachplex combines a darkish bar (reminiscent of shore hideouts where my parents would hole up while we combed the boardwalk arcades) with a full-service yet extremely casual restaurant featuring a striking panoramic view of the water. It was lunchtime when we disembarked, so we stuck to what would clearly become typical lake fare: burgers, fries, nachos, etc. The burgers were big and had a nice char-broiled flavor -- we sampled a Bacon Cheeseburger ($6.49) and a Hawaiian version with Canadian bacon and grilled pineapple ($6.99) -- but it was the French fries that exhibited the most personality, a sort of "curly fry" taste without the twists. The menu also offers a variety of salads and sandwiches worth noting because they are all served on croissants. The Grill's pricier entrées ($7.99-15.99) aren't available during the early afternoon but include such dishes as pasta Alfredo (with chicken or shrimp, or primavera style), fajitas (all types; a fajita dinner for four is $26.99), beef ribs, fried catfish, and fried shrimp, and I bet the outside decks are a nice place to relax after sundown. Though we weren't impressed with the Velveeta-bathed nachos ($5.49), we were treated to free refills on what would end up being the biggest Cokes on the lake, and a rousing chorus of "Funkytown." -- J.S.

VJ's General Store and Cafe

15406 FM 2769 (Volente), 258-1633
Kitchen open daily, 9am-8:30pm

VJ's is the oldest business in the Volente area of the lake. Current owner Bob Freeman's family has been there about 30 years and the previous owner operated VJ's for 30 years before that. A community mainstay and longtime favorite with the local clientele, VJ's has a large American cafe menu with something for everybody. We somehow managed to miss them on our boat trip to Volente Beach, but other lake area businesspeople think so highly of the Freeman's and their contribution to the community, VJ's name just kept popping up. We'll be looking them up real soon. -- V.B.W.

Roscoe's Food Mart & Italian Kitchen

13825 FM 2769 (Volente Rd & Cypress Creek Park), 257-7192
Daily, 11am-10pm

Roscoe's Food Mart warrants a far closer inspection and more column inches than it will get here right now; for months, the Chronicle food staff has speculated (read: fantasized) about a store down near Lake Travis that reputedly serves the best eggplant parmesan sandwich for miles around out of their back room. The good thing is that we finally made it out there; the bad thing is that they've stopped making the special eggplant. Preparing eggplant is too labor-intensive for these quarters; a tiny market of the quasi-convenience ilk, selling beer and wine, live bait, fajita marinade, and ice cream out of about 400 sq. ft. does not lend itself to elaborate food preparations -- or does it? The woman behind the counter raved about the burgers, but we weren't leaving until we got some Italian. One Pepperoni Pizza ($12.45) smothered with roasted red and green peppers and one spicy Meatball Sandwich ($3.95) later, we emerged, sated, from the famed back room. We'll be back. -- M.P.

Smokey J's

7008 RR 620 N (at 2222), 331-4888
Daily, 10am-8pm

When you're 20 minutes from home and you just gotta have some kind of good heavy food for gastrointestinal balance, it's hard to go wrong with barbecue. An impulse stop at Smokey J's can net you any number of serviceable portable foods -- barbecue, sausage wraps, or tacos -- for the ride back to town. The outdoor dining area is good for a quick drive-by or post-lake snack. Besides, J's sits right at the crossroads -- the corner of 620 and 2222 -- always a good spot for a smokehouse. -- P.J.

Mr. Brisket

6812 RR 620 N, 249-1222
Tue-Sun, 11am-8pm

This little BBQ shack sits just south of the burgeoning "Four Corners" intersection at 620 and 2222, and sure looks like a throwback to simpler times. The ambience here is strictly functional, with picnic tables sitting inside a screened enclosure with a little wood-burning stove in the middle of the room. It's a one-man operation where Bob Howell mans the pit, takes your order, fills it, and hands it through the kitchen window. Luckily for the interior temperature, the pit's out back. Inside, there's chopped beef, brisket, pork ribs, sausage, and chicken with meats available in sandwiches, plates, or by the pound. Our Jumbo Combo Sandwich of brisket and sausage ($3.75) had enough meat for two or three people. The sausage was just right, the brisket was very lean and tender, but we could have used a little bucket of sauce rather than the skimpy squirt on the bun. Ask for extra sauce and dig right in. -- V.B.W.

The Oasis on Lake Travis

6550 Comanche Trail, 266-2441
Mon-Thu, 11:30am-10pm; Fri, 11:30am-11pm; Sat, 10am-11pm; Sun, 10am-10pm

For years, the standard rap about the Oasis was this: Go for the view and the margaritas, buy T-shirts and sunset posters for the tourists, but steer clear of the food. Much to our delight, the quality of the food at this super-popular sunset viewing spot has appreciated greatly since the arrival of chef Stephen Rafferty. The Culinary Institute of America graduate took over the kitchen two years ago. The Oasis celebrates its 15th year this summer and things are in great shape. Whether watching other people sail and ski is recreation enough for you, or you seek a relaxing spot to watch the sunset after a day on the water, the multi-level decks spilling down the cliff offer a spectacular view of Lake Travis. Start the meal with a molten bowl of Chile con Queso ($5.95) topped with cool, buttery guacamole ($1.45 extra). Move on to the spicy Chicken Fajitas ($12.95), tender marinated strips of chicken breast with a pile of soft, hot tortillas and a full complement of condiments. Designate a driver and slip into one of the Oasis' famous margaritas as the sun gently disappears below the horizon. -- V.B.W.

The Hideaway

4919 Hudson Bend Rd, 266-1044
Mon-Sat, 11am-2am; Sun, noon-2am

Certain restaurant buildings eventually become part of the neighborhood landscape, regardless of who operates them -- and this is one such spot. Currently, this Hudson Bend neighborhood restaurant/nightclub is known as The Hideaway. The building comes with a full bar, a couple of pool tables, a big screen TV, and a stone fireplace to take away the chill on a cold night. What the current owners bring to the table is pretty respectable food. The day we visited, the Blue Plate Special ($5.95) was pork chops with a choice of two vegetables. Two lightly seasoned chops were artfully arranged beside fresh sautéed carrots and a flavorful serving of cornbread dressing napped with a still-chilly ladle of cream gravy. Besides home cooking items like chicken fried steak, chicken fingers, and Salisbury steak, the kitchen turns out fried seafood (shrimp, oysters, fish) and Memphis Burgers ($4.25) -- big, thick patties on enormous, slightly sweet buns. All the food can be ordered to go and there is live music every night of the week. -- V.B.W.

Hill Country Pasta House

3519 RR 620 N, 266-9445
Mon-Fri, 11am-3pm, 4:30pm-10pm;
Sat & Sun, 3:30pm-11pm

Swim before you eat; we would have sunk after the boatload of moist, chewy homemade bread we ate, and it didn't stop there. A salmon fillet stuffed with spinach, pine nuts, and bell peppers was rich enough without the basil cream sauce and a buttery side of mixed vegetables ($14.95), and the Pasta Aglio e Olio ($13.95) was positively glowing with the olio in which it had been tossed and sautéed. Other options include wood-fired pizza on homemade foccacia, steaks, and kiddie portions of pasta. Paintings on the walls and crayons scattered on the table make this local favorite casual enough for a post-dip dining, but you'll have to drive there: It's on the landlocked side of RR620. -- M.P.

Hudson's on the Bend

3509 RR 620 N, 266-1369
Mon-Thu, 6-10pm;
Fri & Sat, 5:30-10pm; Sun, 6-9pm

The Austin area is home to very few nationally known restaurants, and Hudson's on the Bend is definitely in that small, select group. Hudson's has been a comfortable, civilized outpost in the lake area for the past 12 years. Chef/owner Jeff Blank and chef Jay Moore have built their reputations on game cookery, with everything from native Texas game such as rattlesnake and white tail deer to more exotic meats including ostrich and elk. The innovative chefs incorporate the bounty of the restaurant's extensive herb garden into their unique dishes and sauces. Menus change with the seasons, offering game, seafood and as much local produce as possible. Many of their sweet and savory sauces were so popular with regular patrons that they now have a private-label line of food products available at the restaurant, by mail order, and in exclusive retail outlets. Blank and Moore are also greatly in demand as cooking teachers, often presenting classes at the restaurant. Hudson's is a destination in itself, whether you're at the lake for recreation or not. -- V.B.W.

The Iguana Grill

2900 RR 620 N, 266-8439
Daily, 11am-10pm

The Iguana bills its particular brand of Mexican food as Lake-Mex cuisine. Best we can tell, that means Mexican food served with a great view of the lake. This former family home sits high on a cliff overlooking a lovely stretch of Lake Travis just below the dam, and the patio is always full at sunset. Our favorite dishes are all on the appetizer menu. Try the Queso Fundido($5.25), a bowl of roasted Monterey Jack cheese with rajas of poblano peppers and pico de gallo served with fresh, hot flour tortillas for wrapping. Another reliable choice is the Carnitas à la Parilla ($7.95), marinated grilled chunks of beef steak or chicken tenderloin with a winning smoky chipotle tomato sauce to slather on the meat, on the tortillas, on the chips, or eat directly from the bowl. In fact, we'd probably drive all the way out here just for the chipotle sauce. They also have a selection of festive rum and tequila drinks with which to wash it down, including a chilling Frozen Mango Daiquiri ($4.95). -- V.B.W.

Sam Hill Waterfront Grill

16405 Marina Point, 266-8534
Daily, 11am-11pm

Sam Hill Waterfront Grill
photograph by Minh

With a pop culture atmosphere similar to a Chuy's or a Threadgill's or even a Bennigan's on spring break, Sam Hill's festive decor -- gleaming Fifties Formica tables, chrome chairs, and vintage memorabilia -- works to impart a drown-home, dock-yer-boat-here attitude. Garage doors facing the lake (both upstairs and down) can be raised for open air, allowing the already large restaurant to spill out onto roomy decks that stay breezy even during the heat of the day. Sam Hill's menu is downright gigantic, too, with homey selections from sandwiches to seafood specialties including a rarity around here: Maine Lobster ($28.95). We started on the appetizer list with Peel 'n' Eat Shrimp ($12.95), Beef Taquitos ($8.95), and some heaped Potato Skins ($8.95) that were more like potato halves. And the restaurant's version of that old lake stand-by, the cheeseburger -- 1/2lb of meat ($6.50) -- didn't disappoint. The highlight, though, was the Pan Snapper Orleans ($14.95), a very lightly herb-breaded filet in a tangy yet slight lemon cream sauce, followed by the ice cream & cookie Torpedo ($4.95), the name for which must be a testament to how fast it went down -- almost as fast as the delicious pink margarita of the prickly pear variety ($6) we sampled earlier. Speaking of libations, with the weight given the establishment's bars (one upstairs near the pool tables, one downstairs that holds a Jägermeister shot machine, and another floating on the front deck), one would assume that Sam Hill's can throw a party to rival Beach Blanket Bingo. Luckily its food has more character than Annette Funicello. -- J.S.

Buster's BBQ

303 RR 620 N, 261-4908
Tue-Sat, 11:30am-7pm (or until the meat runs out); Sun, 11:30am-3pm

Partners Tim Cook and Joe Britt have a policy: They cook what they think will be enough food every day and when it runs out, they shut down and have a beer. Their particular brand of victuals are already very popular with regular lake area dwellers, so you'd better go early to be on the safe side. Though they serve traditional Texas brisket and Elgin sausage, their real specialty is pork. These boys do a real Carolina-style pulled pork (pork butt cooked all night, doused with a vinegary sauce and fork pulled), rubbed pork ribs, a boneless pork shoulder stuffed with fresh cloves of garlic and one stuffed with garlic and jalapeños. The meats come in sandwiches, combo plates, and by the pound with custom-made sides of spicy pintos, potato salad, and coleslaw dressed with vinegar and oil. We bought several different pork sandwiches to eat on the road back to town. As soon as we'd had a few bites, we realized our mistake was in not buying by the pound. Make that several pounds and a few sides of ribs. Very good stuff. -- V.B.W.

Hamburger Hut

113 RR 620 N, 266-1524
Mon-Sat, 7am-3pm; Sun, 7am-11am

This unassuming little spot sits back from the road next to a convenience store. We drove up and down 620 several times before we noticed it and by then it was already closed for the day. We checked with knowledgeable locals who report that it's a favored place for delicious country breakfasts and good burgers for lunch. Sorry we missed them, we'll be sure to look them up the next time we're in the neighborhood. -- V.B.W.

Cafe Pacific

107 RR 620 S, #107 (620 Mall), 266-9328
Daily, 11am-10pm

First thoughts of "lake food" usually run to classic junk foods -- burgers and such -- and rarely include anything Asian. However, this little Chinese place tucked away in a "country goose" strip mall may make you expand your horizons. A take-out haven for housebound lake-dwellers, Cafe Pacific renders the ever-present Chinese hits with remarkable freshness and care. Even on the $4.95 lunch special, their Sesame Chicken simply dissolved on the tongue, leaving a rich flavorful sauce behind. The shrimp covered in tangy garlic sauce were sizeable, individually butterflied and cooked to the crucial stage of doneness (read: not rubbery). Makes us wish we lived within delivery distance.... -- P.J.

Travis Room at Lakeway Inn

101 Lakeway Dr, 261-7323
Daily, 7am-2pm; 6-10pm

Travis Room at the Lakeway Inn

photograph by Minh

The idea of Lakeway is alarming: a posh lakeside subdivision with a distinctive logo, several golf courses, its own marina, but no swimming access other than a pool. Nevertheless, The Travis Room in the Lakeway Inn is probably the smartest place with a lake view to get breakfast, and the rest of the menu looks great, too. Though posher than we're used to in Austin, the prices aren't prohibitive, and Diane, our waitress, was so down-to-earth that we wanted to take her on the boat with us. She brought us Travis Eggs Benedict ($7.25), two poached eggs and a fat slice of smoky sweet Canadian bacon splayed over a buttery croissant and plunged in cheesy hollandaise. The other star at the table was the Belgian Waffles ($5.75), with fresh strawberries, maple syrup, and the kicker, clarified melted butter. Everything tastes like lobster once you pour melted butter on it, and that's a great way to start your day. "Legends" is the burger and pub grub place across the hall. We didn't eat there, but we did look inside; the view is even better, it's less expensive, and they have an air hockey table. -- M.P.


18200 Lakepoint Cove, 267-1845
Daily, 11am-10pm

photograph by Minh

We ate our fourth and last meal of the day at Shades, a great place to dock your boat and enjoy "the lake's best margaritas." We tried a cool Chicken Caesar Salad ($6.95) and the Shades Nachos Supreme ($7.25), the perfect things to eat after a day at the lake. (Unfortunately, the margs are as tiny as they are worthy of superlatives. But who needs a big margarita after being in the sun all day and eating four meals?) A menu of burgers, salads, and fried shrimp is just about as ambitious as you want a restaurant on a dock to be, and we really liked Shades for its casual, unassuming feeling. Other perks include evaporative cooling mechanisms, the fact that you can feel yourself swaying slightly you while you eat, and a tremendous, begging gaggle of large-mouthed catfish right next to your table. -- M.P.

Flores Mexican Restaurant

1310 RR 620 S, 263-9546
Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm;
Sat & Sun, 9am-10:30pm

The Flores family's lake outlet is very popular with the locals even though the scenery is strictly shopping center parking lot. The restaurant is cool, clean, and pleasant, and it serves up lunch specials for $4.25 that just can't be beat. We sampled the beef fajita taco with creamy guacamole, refried pinto beans, and Spanish rice. The well-seasoned grilled strips of skirt steak were folded into a soft, warm flour tortilla with a heaping pile of toothsome grilled onions and rajas of poblano peppers. It provided plenty of food for lunch. From the list of platillos especiales, we were impressed with Pollo Caliente ($7.95), a marinated chicken breast covered with the wonderful grilled onions and a smoky blanket of chipotle sauce. Soothing slices of avocado and cool tomato are there to help tame the heat. For our money, the libation of choice here is the La Florita margarita ($5.75) made with Hornitos Sauza tequila and Cointreau, frozen or on the rocks. A blissful refreshment for a hot summer day. Muy amable. -- V.B.W.

Pao's Mandarin House (Lakeway)

2300 Lohmann's Crossing, #130, 263-8869
Daily, 11am-10pm

A western outpost of a central Austin standby, Pao's location is the only substandard about it. You'll need sharp eyes to find it -- in the nondescript Lohmann's Crossing strip center flanked by Randalls and an Allstate insurance agency. But behind the brown corrugated facade, the kitchen and staff work doubly hard to provide great food and service despite a mediocre location. On our visit, the alliterative Double Delicacy Delight (fried shrimp and scallops with four flavor Hunan dipping sauce) was perfectly executed, rivalling the lightest Japanese tempura. -- P.J.

Calame's Canyonside Dining

3595 RR 620 S, 263-4205
Tue-Sat, 11am-3pm (lunch); Tue-Thu, 5-9pm; Fri & Sat, 5-10pm; Sun, 10:30am-2:30pm

Nestled in an upstairs corner of the Hill Country Farmer's Market, Calame's boasts "canyonside" dining, and this new locale serving Continental cuisine does indeed provide a breathtaking view of the steep, still-green hills east of Hwy620. Since the restaurant just opened, and we usually let an establishment have at least six months to get its sea legs before a formal review, it isn't entirely fair to judge its food with the same criteria as the rest of the places we visited. Still, Calame's does have potential to be an elegant choice (with a very reasonably priced wine list) in an area lacking in fine dining, and we felt we would be negligent to leave it out of this round-up.

We started our meal with a Chipotle Salmon Cake ($5.95) -- my favorite dish of the entire dinner -- a fresh, flaky, nicely seasoned round without too much breading, placed atop a mild yet textured relish-like sauce of cucumber, yogurt, and smoked jalapeño. The generous Caesar Salad ($1.75 w/entrée) that followed was light, but the dressing was a bit sweet for my taste. For entrées, we chose the 6oz Filet Mignon ($17.95), which was tender and cooked perfectly to order (it also came with a colorful, crisp seasonal vegetable medley and a side of uninspired garlic mashed potatoes), but the Grilled Vegetable Brochettes ($8.95) -- vegetable skewers served over wild rice pilaf and a tomato-basil sauce were very disappointing. Said in the menu to include eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini, and onions, the skewers we were brought were mostly onions and peppers, featured only one mushroom, and contained no eggplant at all. In addition, the tomato sauce with which it was served was bitter with basil. Dessert, on the other hand -- a rich and fruity Raspberry Chocolate Cheesecake Truffle ($3.95) and a classic version of Key Lime Pie ($2.95) -- made for a delightful finale. With regard to the restaurant's state of flux, just as we were leaving the hostess informed us that their menu is undergoing some changes. I suggest maybe another vegetarian entrée or that more attention be given to the one we sampled. A picture-perfect view like that demands it. -- J.S.

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