Migas at Cisco’s is a “don’t miss” Austin dish if ever there were one, served with your choice of tortillas or piping hot homemade biscuits. (Ask for both.)
Austin is a city that now boasts imitations of nearly every kind of restaurant you can think of. There’s a sushi bar that’s been nominated for a Beard Award (it’s awful), and a place that does as good an approximation of Tuscan food as you can find in, say, Columbus, Ohio. Actually, the Tuscan place isn’t bad; I had a near-excellent pizza there a few months ago.
The mixed-meat plate at the Salt Lick is quite a deal at $11.95, plus homemade rolls.
But what you want to get in Austin is something authentically Texan. That means two things in the capital area: Barbecue and Tex-Mex, with maybe a little no-account cowboy cooking thrown in for good measure. Here, then, are my 10 choices for South by Southwest dining while in Austin. El Rancho and Sandy’s are within walking distance of the convention center, but the rest of the places require a bus or taxi ride. Three places are out of the city limits, but all are well worth the effort it takes to get to them.
10. Dirty Martin’s Kum-Back Place (2808 Guadalupe Street, 512-477-3173)
This greasy spoon up on the northern stretch of Guadalupe used to be about as far north as students would stray. The ramshackle premises, which date to 1926, include an outdoor seating area, an inner dining area with swiveling stools, and a bar, which was once the gas station part of the business. You’ll understand everything when you see the place and munch down on one of their excellent burgers, which come in a dozen permutations, each gooier than the last. The place is also very proud of its onion rings and chili.
9. Tamale House (5003 Airport Boulevard, 512-453-9842)
This temple of Tex-Mex used to be a literal shack down on Congress just north of the river, and it was constantly being shut down by the health department in a neighborhood that was suspiciously short on stray dogs. Nowadays, it’s up on Airport Boulevard in north Austin, in an area suspiciously short on airports. No matter, the locals line up in front of this place in the parking lot starting at 7 or so in the morning, and it’s only open till 3 pm, closed Sunday. The specialty is Tex-Mex “brunch”–breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros, and migas–a delightful scramble of tortilla chips, eggs, cheese, and salsa.
The ornate decoration of Fonda San Miguel might remind you of an Aztec potentate’s tomb.
8. Sandy’s Hamburgers (603 Barton Springs Road, 512-478-6322)
On the way to Barton Springs, this drive-in stand is a relic of an Austin long gone. Their soft serve ice cream is something that I dream about, not because it’s anything other than ordinary: the context makes it sublime. The burgers here are the kind that Danny Meyer tries to evoke in Shake Shack, and nearly manages to. Get your burger Austin-style, with mustard.
7. Sam’s Bar-B-Cue (2000 East 12th Street, 512-478-0378)
This East Austin barbecue, open since 1978, pursues a saucier course than other more traditional barbecues, but is very good nonetheless. It has long been a favorite of SXSW attendees, and, famously, of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Inside the city limits, it’s your best chance to get ribs, brisket, chicken, and mutton. For god’s sake, stay away from County Line Barbecue. Stubbs is not so bad, either.
6. The Frisco Shop (5819 Burnet Road, 512-459-6279)
Once upon a time there was a chain of restaurants in Austin called Night Hawks. These places stayed open late, in a town where the restaurants had a propensity for closing up early. They also had a sort of semi-sophisticated veneer that made students feel like they were in Vegas with the Rat Pack, or something like that. Now the Frisco Shop is the last one left, in a location that was once considered north of town. Made from scratch, the burgers are stupendous, and this is the best place in town to get a real chicken-fried steak. (Avoid Threadgill’s at all costs!)
5. Matt’s El Rancho (2613 South Lamar, 512-462-9333)
Matt was a former professional prizefighter that at one time had three restaurants in downtown Austin, including one barnlike raggedy place right on the interstate that was a favorite of students and tourists passing through–by the busload. Now his holdings have been consolidated into one sprawling modern place on South Lamar that nevertheless manages to put out some of the best Tex-Mex in the world. Their chili con queso (a spicy dip made with a cheese that owes a big debt to Velveeta) is legendary, and so are their enchiladas.
The fabled “clod” and sausage at Smitty’s in Lockhart–well worth the trek from Austin.
Next: Top four places!
Tex-Mex enchiladas at Matt’s El Rancho
4. Fonda San Miguel (2330 West North Loop Boulevard, 512-459-4121, bring GPS!)
This is by far the fanciest restaurant on the list. It serves a modest number of regional dishes from various parts of Mexico, and once led the Mexican revival that sought to elevate the cuisine of the homeland above Tex-Mex. Well, they didn’t quite succeed, because you’ll find Tex-Mex influences all over the menu. The premises are cavernous and elegant, the margaritas strong, and the food often memorably delicious.
3. Salt Lick (Driftwood, TX – 20 minute drive. For god’s sake bring your GPS!)
Salt Lick is an oddball sort of barbecue, having more in common with South Carolina ‘cue, in some ways, than with Texas barbecue. The sauce is mustardy, and it’s smeared on while the meat – a typical Texas selection – is still in the open pits, which is another difference between it and, say, Kreuz Market. Still, many prefer this type of barbecue, and you can’t beat the setting: a screen porch on the edge of the Hill Country. Read about the barbecue at this Fork in the Road piece.
2. Kreuz Market, Smitty’s, and Black’s (Lockhart, TX – 30 minute drive out of town, head south from the airport the minute you arrive)
Lockhart isn’t the closest of the great barbecue towns to Austin (that honor probably belongs to either Driftwood on the southwest, or Elgin on the East), but it is the most historic, and allows you to sample three of the state’s greatest barbecues in one fell swoop. Plus ogle one of the prettiest towns in Central Texas, in the middle of a cotton and pecan producing region. This link will take you to a recent picture story in Fork in the Road that will teach you the meaning of “clod” and “rich” – and I’m referring to the meat, not the customers.
1. Cisco’s Restaurant, Bakery, and Liar’s Club (1511 East 6th Street, 478-2420)
Rudy (“Cisco”) Cisneros was an East Austin baker who specialized in bolillos, pan de huevo, and ginger cookies shaped like pigs when he opened his first bakery cum cafe in 1933. By 1948, he’d moved to the place’s current location, in an area of frame houses, rough bars, and warehouses that has remained miraculously ungentrified. Cisco’s has been Austin’s greatest breakfast place since forever, where politicians have long gathered. It’s also one of the greatest monuments to Tex-Mex cuisine in the state. Migas (see Tamale House, above) is the number one choice, but you can also get huevos rancheros that come with refried beans and a choice of tortillas or southern biscuits, or both. This is probably my favorite restaurant in the world. Open seven days from 7am till 2:30pm.
Cisco’s: LBJ ate there regularly with his political cronies.