Off the Road and Hungry

Where Austin Musicians Eat When They Get Home

Away from Austin, Mark Rubin of Bad Livers craves El Norteño's homemade tortillas.

photograph by John Anderson

In the heyday of the late, great Armadillo World Headquarters, local players and traveling musicians alike spread the reputation of the kitchen there. The word around the country was that the Armadillo kitchen took exemplary care of musicians, preparing hearty meals that put other road food to shame. The Armadillo quickly became a "must visit" place on the list of Austin eateries for musicians and their friends in the know. The fabled Armadillo kitchen is long gone, but the tradition of musicians and their friends and fans spreading the word about reliable meals in Austin is alive and well. It's obvious in the fact that restaurants such as the Magnolia Cafes and Threadgill's do more business during SXSW than any other week all year long. The line snaking around the block outside Las Manitas every morning during SXSW is a prime example of people who were told, "When you get to Austin, you just have to eat at this place; they'll treat you right!" Seeing that line every day made me wonder what other Austin restaurants might be on a musician's "must visit" list. I was curious about the food local artists grew homesick for while they were out on the road and the restaurants they head for once they're home. What follows are the recommendations of the well-traveled palates of some of our favorite players.

Asylum Street Spankers

"We end up eating at so many Cracker Barrels while we're out on the road that sometimes we have to drive out on the highway to get a fix of their food," Spankers songstress Christina Marrs told me on the phone one afternoon before dissolving into laughter at her joke. "Seriously, it's the good Austin Tex-Mex we miss," she says, adding that she loves the Tamale House (5003 Airport, 453-9842) and Dos Hermanos (501 W. Oltorf, 445-5226), while "Pops" Bayless and Mysterious John are devoted to El Rancho Grande (911 W. Anderson, 458-5454). Marrs went on to say that the Spankers had developed an addiction for dumplings in New York City's Chinatown on a recent road trip there, but that they were eager to get back to Texas for brisket from Cooper's BBQ (604 W. Young in Llano, 915/247-5713) and the beef ribs from the Iron Works (100 Red River, 478-4855). "We'd love to do a tour of the great steakhouses and BBQ joints around the state," she told me, with other members of the band shouting agreement in the background.

Guy Forsyth

When he gets off the road, Guy Forsyth eats healthy at Mother's Cafe and Garden.

photograph by John Anderson

Forsyth eats plenty of road food while traveling with the band he fronts as well as when he works as a vocalist for the above-mentioned Spankers. "There is just so much bad food on the road," he told me, "so I like to eat at Mother's Cafe (4215 Duval, 451-3994) when I'm home. The food is so good and healthy." He's also partial to the inexpensive, filling fare at Kim Phung (7601 N. Lamar, 451-2464) and "I love HighLife Cafe (407 E. Seventh, 474-5338)," he enthused. "They have good vegetarian dishes, good breakfast, just good everything."

Bad Livers

This month is the best of times for the Bad Livers, what with their first movie soundtrack debuting with The Newton Boys at the SXSW Film Festival. Though Danny and Suzy Barnes have relocated to Washington state and have a plethora of Chinese food choices, Danny told me on the phone last week that when they're in town for the premiere, they'll be sure to visit Hao Hao (7001-D Manchaca Rd., 447-8121). "We've eaten copious quantities of good food at reasonable prices down there," he said. "We feel almost like family. We've watched the owner's son grow up." Mark Rubin also mentioned Hao Hao, touting a shredded BBQ chicken dish that always satisfies him. Both guys are big fans of local Mexican foods, too. "We like Güero's (1412 S. Congress, 447-7688) a lot, and Curra's (614 E. Oltorf, 441-0012) is great, too," Barnes said. Rubin explained that they learned how to evaluate Mexican restaurants while on tour with accordion king Santiago Jimenez, Jr. one year. "He told us he could always tell how the meal would go by the quality of the tortillas, whether they were homemade or not," recalls Rubin, adding that he's developed a fondness for the homemade tortillas at El Norteño (800 W. Pecan, 990-5597).

Slaid Cleaves

I caught this young man just as he was walking out the door to a gig one afternoon, but he took the time to share some tips. "If I'm going to be out on the road for a long time, I take my wife out to Green Pastures (811 W. Live Oak, 444-1888) as a treat before I leave," he explained. When he comes home, the two of them go straight for Thai food or the well-respected noodles at Fortune Pho 75 (5501 N. Lamar, 458-1792). The intrepid performer even manages to locate good meals on the road with the help of a guidebook. "There's this book called Road Food/Good Food that my manager gave me," he reports. "I found great restaurants in Memphis and Nashville using that book." For visitors to Austin, guidebook authors Jane and Michael Stern recommend Threadgill's (6416 N. Lamar, 451-5440).

Don Walser

Don Walser eats his Austin fill at Threadgills.

photograph by John Anderson

I spoke with the Walsers just after they finished planning a big tour of California where the "Pavarotti of the Plains" will yodel at a strawberry festival later this spring. When I inquired as to what food the singer was partial to other than her home cooking, Pat Walser laughed and said, "Oh, honey, I don't cook. We have breakfast every day at the Dan's Hamburgers (4308 Manchaca Rd., 443-6131) down on Ben White." She also said that she and her family are big fans of Threadgill's, and for Mexican food they're partial to the Flores Restaurant (6705 Hwy 290W, 892-4845) in Oak Hill.

Uncle Walt's Band

Though Uncle Walt's Band was effectively disbanded by the untimely death of Walter Hyatt last year, former band members Champ Hood and David Ball are still alive and picking. Hood plays with Toni Price and is the current emcee for Threadgill's Sittin', Singin', and Supper on Wednesday nights with the Threadgill's Troubadours while Ball is on the road with a band of his own these days. "When I've been out on the road too long, I get that jones for Mexican food," Hood said. When he comes back to Austin, he always stops in at Eastside Tex-Mex mainstay El Azteca (2600 E. Seventh, 477-4701) or hits Fonda San Miguel (2330 N. Loop, 459-4121) for Interior Mexican food. I was able to rely on longtime band buddy Paisley Robertson for information about the culinary preferences of her friends Ball and Walter Hyatt. "David usually wants to make the trip to Lockhart for barbecue at Kreuz Market (208 S. Commerce, 512/398-2361), and he also likes the caldo de pollo at La Reyna (1816 S. First, 447-1280)," she said. She reminisced about afternoons spent with Hyatt watching French films at the old Varsity Theatre and the Village Cinema. "Walter loved everything French: the food, the language, the movies. If there was a French movie playing while he was in town, we'd go see it and then head downtown to Chez Nous (501 Neches, 473-2413) to have Robert serve us dinner."

Ruth and Bill Carter

The Carters and their band "P" had just returned from a fashion show gig in Vienna, Austria when I caught up with Ruth. "We met Roman Polanski at dinner one night," she recalled, "and we had the most incredible pastries everywhere we went," including a slice of the authentic sacher torte at the Hotel Sacher. Once they were back in Texas, Carter told me, bandmate Gibby Haynes insisted on a stop at Nick's Great Pizza (11302 FM 2222, 331-4471). Their other bandmate Johnny Depp always makes a bee line for Ruby's Barbecue (512 W. 29th, 477-1651) whenever he's in town. The Carters themselves favor a few specific dishes at various restaurants around town: the homemade corn and flour tortillas at Angie's Mexican Restaurant (900 E. Seventh, 476-5413), the veggie tamales at Mr. Natural (1901 E. Caesar Chavez St., 477-5228), and the pork ribs at the Iron Works. She didn't toot her own talents in our phone conversation, but you should know that in Austin, Ruth Carter has as fine a reputation as a cook as she does a songwriter. She's the highly respected soup queen at the Eastside Cafe (2113 Manor Rd., 476-5858).

Butch Hancock

Butch Hancock has currently forsaken Austin for the wilds of Brewster County and a job playing music on Rio Grande river raft tours for a company called Far Flung Adventures. Before leaving town, however, he sold his Lubbock or Leave It Gallery to friend Barbara Roseman, and she was able to give me some insight into Hancock's appetites. "When we had the gallery downtown, Butch would disappear for lunch and I could invariably find him by calling Hut's (807 W. Sixth, 472-0693). These days, with the gallery relocated to 2311 North Loop, Roseman has developed a fondness for the Interior Mexican cuisine at neighboring Fonda San Miguel.

Kelly Willis

Local song stylist Willis and husband Bruce Robison are big fans of the Tex-Mex fare and comfortable atmosphere at Enchiladas y Mas (2804 N. I-35, 478-9222). "It's this small place near our house where we feel right at home," she explained, "and I love the chalupas." Kelly also frequents local favorite Kim Phung when she needs a fix of their shrimp spring rolls. When I contacted her representative Davis McLarty for a phone number, he told me about the personal Grub Guide he publishes on his website at where he's just put Curra's on the top of the Mexican food list.

Gene and Betty Elders

The Elders spent about six months of last year on the road with Joan Baez, at least two of that in Europe. "We had great food everywhere," Betty told me, "even in England where we didn't expect it." Playing to devoted, attentive European fans was quite a thrill for the husband and wife team, but they were glad to spend some time back home in Austin before Gene leaves for his regular gig backing up George Strait. "We always head directly to Manuel's (310 Congress, 472-7555) for the corn soup," she explained. "It just restores the soul. Then we'll have migas or the tuna with chipotle. The food there is a real work of art, a feast for the eyes and the palate."

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