The Sixth Course
Eating and drinking our way up and down the city's busiest street
With SXSW, the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo, and the UIL state basketball tournament in town this week, our famous Sixth Street is teeming with thousands of visitors, all likely to be hungry at some point. So it was our job to do some research and share the inside dish on where to grab a bite along Sixth Street, from I-35 to Guadalupe. Within those few blocks, there's everything from high-priced fine dining to street vendors, with plenty of choices in between. Whether you're taking a daytime stroll downtown between ballgames or rocking a late-night pub crawl while listening to the hippest showcases, the Chronicle Food staff has found the meal for you. At dinnertime, the upscale Finn & Porter right there in the conference hotel has an excellent reputation and an enticing appetizer menu. Expense account diners with adventurous palates may gravitate to one of the city's top fine dining establishments, the Driskill Grill (Seventh & Brazos, 474-5911), where recent Iron Chef competitor chef David Bull works his culinary magic. Well-traveled industry power brokers will feel right at home in the exclusive clubby atmosphere of the local Ruth's Chris Steakhouse (107 W. Sixth, 477-7884) where they'll find the same steaks they love in major cities across the globe. Much cheaper fare emerges along the street well after dark, where the affordable mobile vendors set up shop in blocks with more clubs and bars than restaurants, selling portable cuisine, perfect for pub crawling.
Everyone we interviewed from the bartenders to the club regulars to the local bike cops gave a hearty recommendation to the Best Wurst, on the south side of the street, near Sixth & San Jacinto, where you'll find excellent, savory sausages with a tasty selection of condiments. The guys from Bad Ass Fajitas set up on both sides of Sixth at Neches, hawking beef and chicken fajita tacos, as well as hot dogs and gyros. Get in line at the El Rapido (Sixth & Red River) truck where the big menu tends toward Tex-Mex street food plus hot dogs. Slip around the corner to the Red Eyed Fly parking lot, where the Hot Dog King features a selection of "dawgs" ranging from all-beef kosher to tofu to Milwaukee brats and local jalapeño-spiked hot links with dressings to suit your fancy. Each of these spots will serve you up some hearty grub for $5 or less. Chronicle Food writers Kate Thornberry, Claudia Alarcón, Mick Vann, Barbara Chisholm, and Wes Marshall have checked out the restaurants and clubs with menus, and they've got plenty of worthwhile suggestions, too. Virginia B. Wood
West of Congress: Sushi and the morning after
At each end of Sixth Street's historic bar district, you'll find an example of the other kind of bar, the sushi bar. While other types of food have difficulty competing with alcohol for profitability (the rents down on Sixth are not cheap!), sushi can often hold it's own, and the high protein content is just the thing when you know you will probably be drinking. On the west side of Congress, Maiko Sushi Lounge (311 W. Sixth, 236-9888) has established itself as a citywide favorite. This popular, hip, and happening spot is the place to eat, if you can manage to get in. The fish is fresh, the décor is stunning, the crowd is young and beautiful, and the jazz music is great. Chef Seiju Onami has won accolades for his creative rolls and Asian-fusion cuisine, and they are well deserved. Both the sushi and the entrées are superb, if a little on the pricey side (except during Happy Hour, which is from 4:30-7pm weekdays, hint hint). As an added bonus, Maiko's sushi bar is open until 3am Friday and Saturday nights, making it one of the few places on Sixth Street you can get a bite after the show. Be on foot, though, as parking is impossible.
At the eastern end of Sixth, right next door to Emo's, is Arirang Sushi House (616 E. Sixth, 480-2211). This pleasant, rather workaday Korean place has become popular with both touring and local bands and is one of the better choices down at this end of the street. Perfectly decent sushi at relatively low prices (most rolls are under $10) served by a friendly staff in a quiet atmosphere. The Spider Roll is considered a standout, and in a fit of originality, Arirang also offers an extensive list of vegetarian sushi.
For the morning (or afternoon) after, Thistle Cafe (300 W. Sixth, 275-9777) offers an alternative to room service. Open weekdays for breakfast and lunch, they serve breakfast tacos and strong coffee in the morning and hearty sandwiches in the afternoon, earning heartfelt loyalty and devotion from the downtown crowd. Although the menu reads like many another nationwide (cheeseburger, Reuben, club, turkey wrap, soup and salad), the chef and his cohorts take their food seriously and do it right, with fresh ingredients, and that homemade quality that just can't be faked. The enthusiasm of both the customers and the staff is contagious. A lot of their business is takeout, making it a great place to grab something on the run. Kate Thornberry
East, Near I-35: Cuban, Casino, and pie
Among the dozens of shot bars and college hangouts that dot East Sixth, there are a few places worth visiting for outstanding bites to eat between music sets. One such establishment is Habana (709 E. Sixth, 443-4252), located just about half a block west of I-35. This lively eatery serves Cuban and Puerto Rican dishes, among which is the peerless sandwich cubano. Filled with Habana's famous and succulent lechón asado (roast pork), ham, and Swiss cheese lusciously melted inside toasted Cuban-style bread, this is the real deal. Make sure you get it with pickles. As an option, you can order the lechón asado a la carte. Either way, wash them down with a freshly made mojito or a cold beer, and you can't go wrong. And if you are after something sweet, this is the place to try a big slice of tres leches cake, a Latin American favorite that has taken Texas by storm in the past year or so. Habana's version is deliciously moist and sweet, with just the right consistency.
Walking farther east, on the same side of the street, is Casino El Camino (517 E. Sixth, 469-9330), a dark lounge that boasts the best jukebox and the best burgers on Sixth Street, as well as kick-ass foot-long hotdogs made with Hebrew National kosher weiners. The burgers are thick, fresh, and affordably priced. I am partial to the Buffalo burger, slathered in spicy buffalo wing sauce and blue cheese, but they really are all very good. When in Texas, do as the Texans and try the chili cheese dog, covered with spicy homemade chili. Whatever you order, make sure to pair it with a side of the amazingly crispy hand-cut fries. Best of all, the kitchen takes orders until 1am.
At the end of the evening, it's likely that you'll be hungry after all the music, drinking, and club hopping, and the walk-by pizza joints along Sixth street will hit the spot. La Bella Pizza (402 E. Sixth, 457-0099) and Roppolo's (316 E. Sixth, 476-1490), on the north side of the street between Neches and Trinity streets, offer huge slices of pizza with many combinations of traditional toppings that will satisfy that late-night craving without breaking the bank. These are among the few places that remain open after 2am, so expect to see long lines of hungry folks waiting to be fed. Good thing is the line moves fast, so don't get discouraged. Eat your slice, and you'll feel better in the morning! Claudia Alarcón
The 300 Block: Jackalope hops to top
The 300 block isn't blessed with many food venues: Matter of fact, there are just four, if you don't count the curbside cart of the Best Wurst, in front of Dan McKlusky's. Our take with this block was to check with every bar to see if any food was offered, but more importantly, to ask the staff inside what their favorite food on the block might be. The winner hands-down? The Best Wurst. For what it's worth, our favorite nonfood bars on the block, based on smooth vibe, interesting mix of clientele, and gregarious staff: Shakespeare's and 311. There are two pizza joints on the block: Hoek's (320 E. Sixth, 708-8484) and Roppolo's (316 E. Sixth, 476-1490), and the bar staff fans were pretty much split between the two, based mainly on which venue's pie had most recently emerged from the oven. Hoek's was our fave, based on a crisp, thin crust, an assertive tomato sauce, gooey cheese, and high-quality ingredients with big slices in the $2.50 price range. It's the closest to a true New York pie on Sixth. Service is brusque, as it should be, and slices are served on a paper plate, with no seating. Roppolo's serves whole pies and slices, delivers, and has limited seating. The slices are huge, the prices are slightly higher than Hoek's, the tomato sauce wimpy, and the dough thicker. Dan McKlusky's (301 E. Sixth, 473-8924) is a steakhouse with interesting lunch options in the $8 to $14 range, and dinner in the $15 to $35 range (can you say record company expense account?). There are some new items from which to choose, like a raw tuna Hawaiian poke (pronounced POH-kay, please) and a roast duck. Steaks are aged and hand-cut, and the ambience is quiet and elegant.
Iron Cactus (606 Trinity, 472-9240) is the exact opposite: a raucous scene on three floors (the rooftop patio has a great view of Sixth below) with a big bar scene (a list of 80 tequilas and excellent margaritas). Foodwise, look for the fajitas, the pollo relleno, the ancho pork tenderloin, and the chipotle-glazed salmon (prices in the $6 to $20 range).
One of our absolute favorite spots on Sixth is just across Trinity to the east, Jackalope (404 E. Sixth, 469-5801). Red leather booths, Fifties nudie velvet paintings, black walls, good, strong drinks at fair prices, and a patio out back all lure celebs passing through, as well as a posse of the Texas Rollergirls. The juicy burgers rival those of Casino El Camino, which rates them very near the best, and there's a huge list of options in the $5 to $7 range (blackened with bleu, chipotle-bacon, chicken and brie, chicken with pesto and pecan, etc.). Perhaps a "doublewide" hot dog (two big dogs, with bacon, queso, and chile for $6.50) with a side of waffle fries or O-rings. Or maybe you're looking for veggie burgers (three options here) or wings or a salad? This is bar food as it should be. Mick Vann
Near East: Marisco's, Chez Nous, and more
As unlikely as it seems, some of the best eating in this city is to be had in the Sixth Street environs. Unlikely, we say, because one doesn't usually equate a night of clubbing with a night of fine dining. The appetite induced by a club-crawl is usually satisfied by decent pub grub of the fried variety. And there's plenty to satisfy such a need at Buffalo Billiards (201 E. Sixth, 479-7665) with their reliable menu of burgers, sandwiches, wings, nachos, and a variety of other fried munchies just right for snacking while shooting pool. A similar variety of eats can be found across the street at Daddy's Grill & Bar (218 E. Sixth, 236-0778), where the huge flat-screen TVs are plentiful and angus burgers are flame-grilled. At Marisco's Seafood Grill (211 E. Sixth, 474-7372), it's the food that is featured, and Mexican seafood takes center stage. Reliable and popular even during daylight hours, the menu also includes more mainstream Mexican favorites like enchiladas, combo plates, etc. Jazz Kitchen (214 E. Sixth, 479-0474) offers perhaps the most extensive dining options along the street with a menu of New Orleans-inspired fare of chicken, seafood, steak, pasta, sandwiches, and more. Half-sized orders are available on many of the dozens of items, and the King of Sixth Street is usually ensconced outside making this a full-effect destination. Just footsteps off Sixth, tucked away in the cross street, is one of the city's most reliable and favorite dining spots: Chez Nous (510 Neches, 473-2413). When the blare of bands becomes too much and you need a real meal and a treat, you can hardly do better than to partake in one of the delectable bistro meals at this utterly authentic and deliciously charming French cafe. Refueled, you're ready to roll. Barbara Chisholm
Between San Jacinto and Congress: Hitting the spot
The most important stop between San Jacinto and Congress is the brilliant Irish pub B.D. Riley's (204 E. Sixth, 494-1335). Start off with a great big batch of Potato Skins ($4.95) slathered with cheese, bacon, baby onions and sour cream. The two best meals are the Corned Beef and Cabbage ($9.95), which is beer-braised corned beef on tangy cabbage; and the city's best Fish and Chips ($9.95) made from big, juicy slices of cod loin with just the right amount of crispy batter, served alongside a few thick-cut fries. Bring on the malt vinegar!
Across the street is one of Austin's most venerable hotels, the Driskill (604 Brazos, 391-7121), and though it features one of our top and most expensive restaurants, you can also get a reasonably priced meal at the 1886 Cafe and Bakery or some pretty good bar food at the Driskill Bar. At 1886, there are two items not to miss. Helen Corbitt's Cheese Soup ($3 cup, but you'll want a bowl for $5) is Chef David Bull's take on Ms. Corbitt's famed Canadian Cheese Soup. For those of you from out of state, from the Thirties to the Sixties, Ms. Corbitt was Texas' Julia Child, Alton Brown, and Miss Manners all wrapped up in one. One of her stops along the professional highway was at the Driskill Hotel, so there's some authenticity to them using her recipe. Order a Live Oak Pilz ($4) to make the meal complete. If soup doesn't thrill you, the Pizza Bianco ($9.95) with mozzarella, Parmesan, a hint of garlic, a bit of basil, and a nice hit of white truffle oil is a good way to fill up an empty stomach. Many folks go to the 1886 just for dessert. Save room; you will be sorely tempted. The Driskill Bar is a simpler place with a short menu and stiff drinks. Best choices on the menu are the Chili Battered Onion Rings With Spicy Chipotle Ketchup ($7) and the Driskill Cheese Burger ($10 and watch out for the heat; they use jalapeño-infused cheese).
Just up Sixth is Louie's 106 (106 E. Sixth, 476-1997). Louie's has been around for many years, waving goodbye to a lot of competition during that time. They've stayed afloat by offering a quiet, urban, romantic location where you can watch the world float by without having to be bothered by the noise. They serve a few excellent tapas, like steamed mussels, fried calamari, and grilled asparagus. The prices vary by season and serving, but almost all the tapas are fairly priced, between $3.50 and $5. If you are in the mood for more, I usually gravitate to the Moroccan Spiced Pork Tenderloin Medallions ($19.50), spicy, juicy, and dressed with honey and mustard sauce and served with perfectly mashed potatoes with Gruyere cheese. Wine lovers can go crazy at Louie's with one of the best wine lists in town, a consistent winner of the Wine Spectator's awards.
The last stop on Sixth Street is an Austin traditional, Schlotzsky's (106 E. Sixth, 473-2867). The company was formed 35 years ago here in Austin, just a few minutes south on Congress Avenue. Since then, the company has grown quite a bit, but to this day, nothing touches their original sandwich. Unfortunately, as any longtime Austinite will tell you, they don't make 'em like they used to. But they still make 'em damn good, and the thing to get is the Original ($5 for the size I recommend, the one closest to the prototype). Guaranteed to put a smile on your face, but get there early. They close at 6pm on weekdays and 4pm on weekends. Wes Marshall